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How Did a Decapitated Snake Bite Itself?

They say karma comes back to bite you in the butt. For the wild copperhead snake in the above YouTube video, it wasn’t karma that bit his behind. It was his own decapitated head.

The video uploaded Tuesday shows a severed copperhead snake head resting idly next to its slithering, beheaded body. At 26 seconds, just when you think the serpent is as good as dead, the detached head surges up and sinks its fangs into its own tail. (See more snake pictures.)

Sam Billiter, the Huntsville, Alabama, man who killed the animal and filmed its death, is heard throughout the video, narrating the strange spectacle. “That is just crazy! How you gonna bite yourself, snake?” he shouts hysterically—or should we say, hiss-terically.

“You have your own tail in your mouth, buddy. Wow.” The viral video already has over 750,000 views.

To understand how these limbless, flexible reptiles are capable of movement up to an hour after their deaths, National Geographic got in touch with James Murphy, head of the Reptile Discovery Center at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C. (Also see: “Virus That Twists Snakes Into Knots Revealed.”)

What exactly is happening in this video? Is the snake dead?

By the time the snake has lost its head, it’s dead and the basic body functions have ceased, but there is still some reflexive action. In other words, snakes have the capability of causing biting and injecting venom even after the head has been severed, even though it is dead.

Why does it bite itself?

That’s what is available, that’s what is next to him. Even when you take the head off, a snake can continue to bite and open its mouth. This is why snakes sometimes bite themselves, especially when they get excited and they are not careful about what they are trying to bite.

Can a snake die from being poisoned by its own venom?

This is a debated topic. There are certainly cases of captive snakes biting each other and causing the death of another snake of  the same species. But the question is whether this is because of injury from the mechanical bite—when fangs penetrate the body of the other snake—or from susceptibility to the venom.

If I find a snake in my yard, what should I do?

Avoid it and do not try to kill it. That is when most snakebites occur. From the perspective of a herpetologist, I don’t want to see any snakes killed. If people try to capture or kill a snake and they don’t have experience, they can get bitten themselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Jaclyn Skurie on Twitter.

Comments

  1. loel mckinnon
    usa
    March 6, 6:38 am

    When I was a child, the local newspaper carried a front page picture of a man holding a large dead rattlesnake. He worked in the woods “chipping boxes”. That means he had a tool that stripped the bark from the pine trees starting next to the ground and over time working up the sides of the trees. This method drained the turpentine from the trees and it was harvested. On this occasion, he was bend over next to the ground and was struck by the snake. The bite went over his fingers and the snake actually bit itself in its own jaws. It immediately went into a wreathing curl and died. The event was made known to the newspaper and they reported the story. So, yes the venom will kill itself.

  2. Cindy
    February 22, 11:14 am

    This is supposed to be National Geographic? Reptiles stay alive up to an hour after being decapitated. Not a “reflexive action.”

  3. Kitt
    January 15, 4:14 am

    Maria, don’t babies crawl on their belly too?

  4. John
    Australia
    December 21, 2013, 2:24 am

    Can snakes die from self inflicted bite? Yes, from what I’ve seen. A young Eastern Brown snake I saw near the side of the road in the Hunter Valley area of NSW had its fangs embedded in its own body, and appeared to be lifeless. Just an observation.

  5. Jamie coughli
    United States
    September 19, 2013, 6:06 pm

    I remember reading about someone who wondered how long a human head would be conscious. This was during the time of many many beheadings. It was somebody famous and he asked his friend to be there with him and that he would blink as many times as he could and to count them. I believe he counted about 17 blinks. Which is an awfully long time to be without your body and still aware! So I too wonder how long a snake would be aware. I suspect it is longer than 17 blinks.

  6. Uvanga Tuinnaq
    Iqaluit, Nunavut
    August 27, 2013, 3:26 pm

    I live in Nunavut and this sounds plausible. I have heard the same thing happens if you cut the head off a Greenland shark. They will still try to bite you even though their head is not connected anywhere near their gut anymore

  7. Lelouch
    August 24, 2013, 6:36 pm

    Huh?! Why he did kill this poor animal for no reason in the first place???? This was rather disgusting to me, how people can be that …just to play with it he did something like that. Unforgivable! If you knew at least a little bit about biology you wouldn’t have done that kind of thing to know how neuron impulses work.

  8. jay
    August 24, 2013, 3:45 pm

    Actually I was told while growin not to use a matchet when killin snake to avoid splittin it into two because d body wil continue to move until it gets somtin to bite and release its venom into. Kill a snake with a freshly cut tree branch

  9. Tina McCants
    Evergreen, Texas
    August 24, 2013, 11:28 am

    My friend killed a copperhead last week and it’s decapitated head bit her dog. The dog survived but I was amazed that it could bite after its dead.

  10. Snake "willy" charmer
    Madrid spain
    August 21, 2013, 6:43 am

    That snake snake has “bluetooth”

  11. muhammad
    Kano, Nigeria
    August 21, 2013, 6:15 am

    interesting! I though i like snakes a
    nd seek for snake’s stories 4rm elders who familiarized with, i had never come across somthing like this. Snake bites itself… Wow… Wonderful!

  12. chuks Ihesiaba
    Abuja, Nigeria
    August 20, 2013, 12:39 pm

    I need update post to my mail box

  13. Guest
    London
    August 20, 2013, 5:34 am

    “Any thing that crawl on their belly is evil. They are the devil. Their main aim is to kill and to destroy.. Please ke aware of them. The Bible teaches us that”

    Really? The complete and utter ignorance in this comment is true testament to the stupidity of the world we live in. The bible also teaches you to blindly accept the answer to any unknown question as, “because “god” made it that way” instead of investigative science. Take your hypocritical dark ages bible logic somewhere else. Science is the path to enlightenment and this is National Geographic, not the bible channel forums.

  14. Xavy Aguilera
    Virginia
    August 20, 2013, 3:28 am

    Maria, with all due respect, many topics discussed in the bible are complete nonsense. Not all “belly crawling” creatures are “evil.” Snakes and many other animals, only attacked when they feel threatened. Also, the venom of snakes is actually used in medicines, and i’m pretty sure many other substances/materials from other animals are used to cure/treat people too. So stick that in your bible.

    By the way, I respect your opinion, but I’m 15 years old, and I pretty much proved you wrong.

  15. James
    USA
    August 20, 2013, 12:52 am

    Sad that people are so dumb now we need to have a Herpatologist explain what happened in this video.

  16. Rambert
    August 19, 2013, 7:19 pm

    I believe that the snake still has life and brain capacity even after its head has been cut off. It’s more than just a reflect action. A snakes hair is still functioning to a small capacity. Because as you can see in the video it reacts to the contact of the body. Also the body itself appears to operate or function separate from a reflect response, but it reacts from the stimulus from the bite of the head. So somehow both parts were actually alive at the time and remains alive for a certain amount of time, then dies eventually from the lack of homeostasis.

  17. maria
    West Indies
    August 18, 2013, 12:10 am

    Any thing that crawl on their belly is evil. They are the devil. Their main aim is to kill and to destroy.. Please ke aware of them. The Bible teaches us that.

  18. Suha Riyaz
    Ireland
    August 17, 2013, 11:47 am

    This is the MOST UNBELIEVABLE THING III HAAVE EVER SEEN. oh my god. I don’t know what to make of snakes

  19. Guest
    Los Angeles
    August 17, 2013, 6:40 am

    I guess it depends on what you mean by “dead,” perhaps it is just semantics by calling it “reflexive” rather than a statement about the consciousness of the snake. Rather it appears that a reptile’s head can live independently for a time as its nerves deteriorate, which would be logical given their slow reptilian cold-blooded physiology. I see no necessary reason that the brain of an animal’s severed head should cease to function instantaneously. A pretty ghoulish topic and thing to watch but it raises the question of how long a human head would live after decapitation. Far more ghoulish but still a legitimate question.