Fangs are a snake’s best defense against predators, and their best offence against prey. They’re sharp as razors, can fire out deadly venom, and are the primary deterrent keeping larger animals away from snakes.
What do you think about when you think about snakes? A rattling sound? Being squeezed to death? Or is it a snake’s BITE? I’ll bet the first thing that jumps to mind is…FANGS.
You may be wondering what distinguishes a tooth from a fang. You have teeth, but are they also fangs? There are actually some very important differences. Fangs are more interesting than you might have thought. They can be inward-facing, grow back after falling out, and even be milked for the venom they contain.
Do non-venomous snakes have fangs? What’s the difference between teeth and fangs? Can snake teeth grow back if they fall out? To know the answers to these questions, and a hell of a lot more questions, read on…
Here is a list of gruesome and fascinating fang facts you almost certainly did not know.
1. The longest fang belongs to…
The prize for longest fang in the world goes to… the highly venomous gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica), also known as butterfly adder, whisper, swampjack or forest puff adder. My advice: if you hear anyone calling out any of these names in urgent tones, translate those urgent tones into swift movements. That being said, these giant critters only live in sub-Saharan, tropical Africa, so if you’re not in their locale then you don’t have to worry.
In a 6 ft (1.83m) specimen, fangs measuring 2 inches (50mm) were recorded! Not only does the gaboon viper have the largest fangs of any snake extant today, it also produces more venom than any other snake. That puts it at least in the top 10 scariest animals, surely. Let me know if you agree in the comments below!
‘But wait… Exactly how much venom is that?’ I hear you ask. Well, if you’re squeamish, it’s enough that you shouldn’t read any further.
A single adult male gaboon viper can produce enough venom to kill 30 adult male humans—that’s lethal injections. And, to top it all off, the gaboon viper injects its venom deeper than any other snake. These creatures are docile and sluggish by nature, but can muster some serious speed if they feel threatened. They are unpredictable and extremely dangerous. The symptoms are…well, it’s best not to go into that.
2. Most snake fangs are hollow
That’s right—the vast majority of snake fangs are hollow. This is because they act like syringes for venom. Imagine a syringe without a hole in the middle, it’s pretty useless! So snakes need hollow fangs to shoot venom through them, into you. Or its proper prey.
Snakes are so adept at shooting venom that some of them fire off a couple of quick rounds as a warning to a would-be predator. Spitting cobras are particularly naughty in this regard—they can spit venom up to 6 ft! But this is uncommon in defense scenarios, so you shouldn’t have to worry about getting a dose of venom to the eyeball.
If a snake is acting defensively, it may strike, but it will rarely deploy venom. Venomous strikes are reserved for when attacking prey, because that’s when it’s really important for the bite to be fatal. Conversely, the purpose of striking in defense is merely to scare the threat away—i.e., to convince you or whatever it feels threatened by, that it could kill you if it wanted to!
Hollow fangs bring me onto Fascinating Fact #3…
3. Some snake fangs are not hollow
Some snakes’ fangs are not hollow. They’re not tubes at all. Rather, if you chopped it width-ways and looked at the cross section, you would see a C shape, like an unfinished circle. We call these fangs grooved fangs.
This is quite a confusing factoid. Scientists are unsure of the cause of these ‘incomplete’ fangs. They are still fairly effective at injecting venom (or envenomating) prey, but obviously not as effective. Hence, there are still some pretty big question marks. Some say that they represent an evolutionary stepping stone—that these snakes are either working on something new (so to speak), or haven’t quite caught up with the others yet.
Of course, many snakes have teeth, which are not hollow at all. This is because they are not meant to inject venom, so they don’t need to serve as hypodermic needles. Let’s clarify this a little bit, shall we?
4. Fangs and teeth are not the same thing
When we talk about mammals, fangs are specialized teeth which have evolved to be extra good at biting and tearing flesh. Take a look at your pet cat, or dog, next time they yawn. Those are fangs! Fangs perform a variety of functions, most of which have something to do with scaring, catching or retaining a grip on prey. Teeth do the munching, the chewing and the churning.
There are lots of animals which have fangs, most of which are carnivores. (Fruit bats are one of the only herbivorous animals in possession of fangs.) Those elongated teeth either side of your four top middle teeth? Sadly, they don’t count…
Technically, spiders and horseshoe crabs have fangs too. These are actually a lot more like a snake’s fangs than you might have thought. They are also hollow and contain venom glands. Spiders and snakes are clearly on the same wave band.
The most important difference between fangs and teeth is the specialization. Fangs have developed specifically for the task of biting animal flesh, and snake fangs have evolved specifically for the task of injecting venom. A snake’s fangs are connected to the small, venom-producing sac located behind its eyes.
Teeth can be found lining the mouths of non-venomous snakes, but also in the mouths of some venomous snakes—in small rows running along the sides. Constrictors have larger, stronger teeth than venomous snakes, because they need to use them a lot more.
One thing unites all snakes, however: they all swallow their prey whole. This means they don’t use teeth for chewing, only for latching onto the animal so that it can’t escape.
5. Some fangs can fold backwards
Imagine you’re a gaboon viper with fangs two inches long. You’re going to need somewhere to store those fangs while you’re not using them! Rattlesnakes also have notoriously long fangs, so they need a way of ‘putting them away’ between hunts.
Their solution is to fold the fangs up, so that they lie flat against the roof of the mouth. Fangs that do this are solenoglyphous fangs—which is a long word, so if ‘folding fang’ is easier to remember, go with that when you mention this at your next dinner party.
The way it works is that there is a hinge attaching each fang to the jaw which allows them to fold in and out whenever necessary. Many of the longest fangs are also partly encased within a protective sheath, because of how fragile they are.
This characteristic folding fang belongs to the viper family, which includes rattlesnakes (pit vipers) and gaboon vipers (‘true vipers’). This nifty feature allows them to close their mouths when they need to.
These fangs remain basically unchanged in their 40 million year history. They’re clearly very effective!
6. Some fangs don’t fold backwards
The opposite of the ‘folding fang’ is the static fang, or proteroglyphous fang. These belong to the elapid family—sea snakes and cobras, mambas and coral snakes. This type of fang is affixed right at the front of the jaw, and cannot fold.
As you can guess, these fangs are much shorter. If they weren’t, they would dig right into opposite side of the snake’s mouth! To compensate for this, these snakes latch onto their prey for a lot longer than snakes with solenoglyphous fangs, because it takes longer to inject the same amount of venom.
Snake teeth are always fixed in place. Typically, they have four rows on the top and two on the bottom—these, like your teeth, are stuck in place!
So, that covers the types of fangs which are at the front of the mouth. Last on the list of fang types are those which are located at the back.
7. Some snake fangs are located at the back of the mouth
These are called opisthoglyphous fangs. Again, a tricky word, but you can refer to them as ‘rear fangs’. Rat snakes, and the rest of the colubrid family, are examples of ‘rear-fanged snakes’. Most are harmless – to humans – but some, including the boomslang, can be lethal.
The difference here is that they’re pushed all the way to the back of the mouth, behind the snake’s regular teeth. This means that at the front of the snake’s mouth are regular teeth—just like us!
These fangs are the ones which aren’t properly hollow. Even further back, there is another pair of fangs on the roof of the mouth. These are hooked up to a venom gland different to the ones found in the snakes I talked about earlier. This one is called Duvernoy’s gland, and it releases a venomous saliva mixture while the snake is eating.
That’s the reason why these snakes can get away with eating animals alive, because their saliva/venom takes them out while they’re inside the mouth.
8. Snakes have six rows of teeth
OK, so I mentioned this in the last answer, but it deserves a fact of its own. Snake teeth aren’t arranged like human teeth, all in two neat rows; nor are their rows aligned concentrically, one group behind or inside the other. The architecture of a snake’s mouth is on a completely different level to that of a human.
Allow me to explain…
A snake’s top jaw isn’t connected by bone to its bottom jaw; nor is the left half of its bottom jaw connected by bone to the right side; the same goes for its top jaw.
Think of a snake’s jaw configuration a bit like one of those fortune tellers you can make out of paper, with four moveable segments. That’s something like how it works. This is how snakes can open their mouths so incredibly wide, and eat prey far larger than their heads.
Also, for this reason, normal teeth just wouldn’t cut it. Instead, they have two rows of teeth on each upper section, one outside the other. Then, on each lower jaw, they have one set of teeth. So, all in all, they have six rows—though it’s not exactly the six rows you expected when you read the title!
9. Snakes do not have molars
I also alluded to this earlier, but want to say a bit more on the subject. Molars are the kind of teeth which herbivores have—they are wide and relatively flat, and are named after millstones. Obviously, snakes don’t eat the prey the way herbivores do. Instead, they swallow it whole and digest it en masse.
The rows of actual non-fang teeth a snake has are long and sharp, like a dog’s incisors. The purpose of these teeth is not to chew, but to latch on, like barbs.
When a snake bites its prey, it needs its fangs to sink in as deep as possible, so that it can inject its venom into a vein. If the prey moves while the fangs are locked in, they could break off. If that happened, the snake would be very sad, so the sharp teeth are very important.
Humans have both kinds of teeth, though even our sharpest ones don’t count as fangs. At the back, we have millstone teeth, or molars, which we use to chew food. The sharper teeth at the front are used for tearing, or cutting, our food.
10. Some snakes don’t have fangs or teeth
There is a special breed of snake which doesn’t need fangs, or teeth, at all. This is because they don’t even need to bite their prey. What kind of snake doesn’t need to hunt, or catch, or bite its prey? You guessed it. Egg-eating snakes!
Birds’ eggs, snake eggs, eggs from other reptiles or amphibians—they’re not fussy. Well, they are a bit. They only eat eggs. If egg-eating snakes had fangs, they would just get in the way when they’re eating. So, evolution played its best hand, and they dropped teeth altogether.
You may be wondering how a snake eats an egg without biting it. Remember that they have spent millions of years evolving to be good at it!
First, the snake swallows the egg. The inside of its spine is lined with a set of bone spurs, which puncture the egg once it’s inside. Then it tenses the muscles along the length of its body, which causes the spurs to jab at the egg until it cracks, opens up, and can be digested egg, shell and all.
11. Snake teeth are prone to falling out
Hey, it happens to the best of us. It’s a tough life out there for a wild snake, literally battling other animals to death in order to find nourishment. You could say it’s even harder for the prey, constantly living in (justified) fear of snakes! Every animal that gets caught will struggle in some way, and sometimes the struggle is enough to dislodge a tooth.
This sometimes results in mouth rot (infectious stomatitis), if a snake already has a weak immune system due to malnourishment or high levels of stress. Usually though, having a tooth knocked or torn out isn’t the end of the world.
How come? Because they grow back!
Much like a starfish grows back its arms, a snake will re-grow its teeth. Even better than this—if the tooth is lost from the outer set, the snake will simply move one of its inner teeth forward, to occupy the place of the lost tooth. Incredible! They can re-grow as many teeth as they need, right up until they die.
12. But it’s OK, because snake teeth grow back very quickly
They absolutely need to! A snake without fangs is like a fish without fins, or a bird without a bill. It would die very quickly. Fangs are a snake’s primary survival mechanism—they deter predators, kill prey, and are just altogether indispensible for snakes.
So, again, evolution played its part. The snake species which survived over the millennia were the ones which could grow their teeth back relatively quickly. Natural selection dictates that this ability would be passed down from generation to generation.
That’s why it only takes a snake a couple of days to completely re-grow a fang. That’s right—2 or 3 days is all it takes! In order to facilitate this, they have up to six replacement fangs on the production line, at various stages of development.
This leads me onto…
13. Snakes shed their fangs, not just their skin
This is a particularly neat trick. Have you ever noticed that if you use a very sharp knife a lot, it becomes blunt quite quickly? Well, it’s the same with snakes’ fangs.
Luckily, as humans, we don’t have to worry about this, because our teeth are blunt already. But for snakes it’s a big deal.
Fanged snakes shed their fangs approximately every 6 to 8 weeks. New fangs will emerge in their place, meaning the snake always has a set of razor sharp fangs, ready to go. Sharp fangs good, dull fangs bad.
14. Constrictors have different teeth to venomous snakes
Constrictors don’t have fangs, period. Instead, their teeth are more like ours—static, solid (as in, not hollow) and small. They need stronger (as in, less fragile or flimsy) teeth because of the way they kill their prey—constriction. They need to hold onto their prey for a lot longer than a venomous snake, and there’s more likely to be a struggle. Fangs are too prone to breaking and are therefore not suited to this method of killing.
A constrictor’s teeth are evenly spaced, evenly sized and evenly shaped.
15. Constrictors’ teeth point inwards, and backwards
Another interesting thing about constrictors’ teeth is that they don’t point up, or down, like ours—or like the teeth of almost any other animal.
Instead, they point backwards, at a sharp angle from the jaw bone. The purpose of this is obviously to make sure the prey can’t wriggle free of their vice-like jaws. Before they can constrict whatever they’re hoping to eat, they need to get themselves around it. While they move into position, they need these backwards-facing teeth to keep it in place.
Imagine being bitten by teeth like these! The more you try to wriggle free, the more the teeth sink in, and the more trapped you become. Nasty!
This leads me onto an important snake-handling lesson.
If you are bitten by a common household snake with backwards-facing teeth (or any non-venomous snake, for the matter), do not pull your hand away. This would only cause you more pain, and risk yanking the snake’s teeth clean out—which is not a desired outcome.
Instead, stay calm, and hold the snake behind the head. Push firmly down behind the top of the head, towards the bite. This should result in the snake disengaging its teeth. Then you can take your finger—or wherever it bit you—away without any more pain being caused.
16. It is possible to ‘milk’ snake fangs
This isn’t as weird as it sounds. Or maybe it is…
In many countries, snake venom is ‘milked’ from the fangs of venomous snakes. This is not like milking a goat or a cow. Rather, it is the process of extracting the venom from the fangs, in a very controlled environment. It is performed only by specialists.
Essentially, they provoke the snake to generate a defensive reaction. Instead of giving them flesh to bite onto, however, they put the snake’s mouth around the rim of a beaker or vial. It secretes the venom into the glass, which is sent to pharmaceutical companies for processing.
The venom is then processed and used to create antivenin (or anti-venom), which is used to save the lives of people who are bitten by snakes. It works similar to a vaccine to a disease—a small amount of the venom, if processed correctly, can function as an antidote to the venom itself.
This makes snake venom quite a valuable substance. A milked snake will go on to produce venom for as long as it lives.
17. Snakes still bite after dying
Not kidding. The bite reflex of venomous snakes in particular is so exceptionally powerful that it kicks in from beyond the grave. You know what happens if your leg is dangling with the knee bent, and the doctor knocks it with a hammer? Well, it’s a similar thing. It’s a reflex reaction that you can’t control.
The best (or worst) part is that it happens hours after the snake has died. There are stories of people being bitten by severed cobra heads—it sounds far-fetched, but it’s real. In a restaurant in China, the head of a spitting cobra attacked a chef as he went to throw it into the bin. He died before he could get to the hospital. All it took was a fraction of a second to inject him with a fatal dose of venom.
It sounds made up, but there are other similar stories. It happens because the reflexes are triggered by electrical impulses, travelling along nerves.
Cutting a snake’s head off may remove the brain from the musculature, but it doesn’t take the electrical charge out of the nerves. Snakes are hardwired to strike in response to certain stimuli, and will do so even if they’re headless. Such stimuli can include, for example, a knock on its nose, or a finger between its jaws. Deadly!
And there you have it. If you’re not impressed by these fascinating fang facts, I don’t know what to say. Next time you’re at a dinner party, or visiting the dentist, try dropping one or two of these into conversation, and watch the reactions on your fellow conversationalists’ faces.
Let us know in the comments below if you can get a reaction out of someone! We’d love to hear your stories. Or, if you have any more amazing facts about snakes’ fangs, write them below! We’re always on the hunt for interesting facts.
Good luck out there!