Why Do Snakes Curl Up?

snake curling up

Snakes are fascinating reptiles!  They can make great pets, and the more you learn about them the more interesting they become.  Snakes have plenty of behaviors that are unexpected and mysterious.  If you’ve ever had a pet snake, you might notice that one of these behaviors is that they might curl up for a good part of the day.  Is there an explanation for this?

Why do snakes curl up?

Snakes curl up for a number of reasons including for protection, warmth, out of fear or stress, and in preparation to strike.  It can be challenging to read a snake’s body language, but it’s important to be able to determine why a snake is curling up and whether you should be worried or not. 

Let’s take a closer look at why pet snakes and wild snakes curl up.

Why Do Snakes In The Wild Curl Up?

Snakes in the wild curl up for a few different reasons.  These reasons can vary between species of snakes. If you live in an area with lots of snakes and spend time outside, it’s a good idea to learn more about them.

If you’re only here because your pet snake is curling up, one of the best ways to understand a pet’s behavior is to understand its natural history.  If you know what your species of snake is like in the wild, you can make their life in captivity as good as possible.

Let’s dive into some of the reasons why snakes in the wild curl up.

1. They’re Trying To Keep Their Temperature Regulated

One of the traits of a reptile is that they are cold-blooded.  Most of us learned in school that cold-blooded animals have to use the environment to regulate their temperature.  Unlike mammals, reptiles rely on the temperature of their body to maintain homeostasis.

One of the reasons why wild snakes coil is to help them maintain their temperature.   Many species of snakes spend the majority of their days either burrowing in the ground or curled up under a rock.  If the climate is colder, curling up can help them trap heat.  In warmer weather, snakes take advantage of shady areas and curl up so that their long bodies don’t go into the direct sunlight.

2. It’s a Protective Pose

Another reason why wild snakes can often be observed in a curled-up position is that it’s defensive.

Have you ever boxed before?  If so, you know that one technique is to keep your arms and fist close to your body.  Not only does this provide a shield for your face, but it also creates a smaller target for your opponent.  Snakes curl up for the same reason.

In the wild, animals constantly have to be aware of predators and prey.  Snakes are predators, but there are many animals that eat snakes as well. If a snake is resting in a long stretched-out position they are a larger target.  A stretched-out snake is more easily spotted by a predator like a hawk from the air.  The odds of a curled-up snake being spotted are much lower.

The coiled stance is also protective because a snake is shielding their inner organs.  Think of the fetal position, and the way that this pose can protect our internal organs from damage,  The same is true for snakes.  Instead of a snake leaving its midsection out in the open., they will often choose to curl up and protect it.

3. They Could Be Preparing To Strike

On the other hand, a coiled snake could also indicate a snake that is ready for offensive action, rather than defensive action.

Have you ever seen a snake strike before?  A snake strike is a fast darting movement that snakes make with their heads towards a threat.  Depending on the snake a strike can come with a push, a bite, or an injection of deadly venom.

The ideal position for a snake to strike from is a curled or coiled-up position.  This is because a snake needs a sturdy foundation to push its body off of.  A strike begins with a coiled snake and ends with up to 2/3 of the snake’s body striking out.   When a snake senses a threat, it will start to coil up for protection and to prepare itself to strike.  To read more about striking distances in snakes, read our article by clicking here.

Wild snakes can often be observed curling up, but it’s not necessarily something to be afraid of.  If a snake is coiled under a rock, they are just keeping its temperature steady and protecting itself.  If a snake is coiled up, with the upper part of its body alert and facing you, be careful!  This could be a snake that is preparing to strike.

Why Do Pet Snakes Curl Up?

Wild snakes often curl up to stay warm and to stay safe.  Pet snakes aren’t so different.  It’s very instinctual for a snake to rest in a coiled position.  It would actually be a little strange if your snake slept stretched out.  But, snakes shouldn’t stay coiled all of the time and should feel comfortable enough to stretch out and explore.

Let’s talk about some of the reasons why your snake might be coiled up more than you think it should be.

1. They’re Young

Did you just get your snake?  If so, maybe you got a hatchling.

Younger snakes will often be more defensive than older snakes.  They are cautious and careful. This means that a young snake might spent more time coiled up.  Even if you bring your young snake out to try and handle them, they still might not release from their coil. That’s okay!  Just make sure to take it slow and give your snake time.  Once they feel comfortable they will start to uncurl.  Never force your snake to move in a certain way, you run the risk of injuring them!

2. They Need a Place to Hide

Do you see your pet snake curling up in the middle or corner of its enclosure?

If so, that means your snake needs a place to hide!   All snakes like to hide away, it’s natural and instinctual.  If you have a terrestrial snake, they should be provided with a nice hide and or burrowing substrate.  Arboreal snake species should have a nice area to hang and sleep on where they feel hidden and secure.

Your snake shouldn’t ever be curled up in the open, that means they’re not comfortable.  When your snake is in the open it should be moving around.

3. They’re Too Cold

Do you feel like your snake never moves around?  It could be that they’re too cold.

Our cold-blooded scaly friends need warmth to move.  If they’re too cold, they will stay coiled up to retain what little heat they have.  Because snakes can’t tell us that they’re cold, a snake that doesn’t move from its coil is a good hint that they are cold.

The temperature and humidity of your snake’s enclosure are dependent on the species of your snake.  Make sure you do the research to know what environmental needs your species has.

4. They’re Stressed

The last reason your pet snake might stay coiled is that they are stressed.

Your snake doesn’t have homework or a job and isn’t threatened by predators like a wild snake.  However, your snake could still be stressing about something.

A bad enclosure setup could actually cause your pet to feel stressed or even afraid.  As we mentioned above, the ability to hide and the temperature are two things that could cause a snake to coil up.  If your snake isn’t comfortable they will feel constantly stressed and feel the need to take this protective stance.

Constant or unwelcome handling could also be stressing your snake out. If you and your snake are new to handling, make sure you do your research.  This process can take a long time and if you push your pet too far, they will likely stay tightly coiled during handling.  Some snakes are less stressed by handling than others, but this could still cause your pet to curl up in a tight ball!

Are Certain Species More Likely To Curl Up Than Others?

All snakes are bound to curl up when threatened, it’s only natural.  Terrestrial snakes will often spend a lot of their time curled up.  In the wild this is normal, and if your pet snake is happily coiled in their hiding place, it’s not a bad thing.  Arboreal snakes spend a little less time coiled up and spend more time climbing branches and sleeping up in trees.

There is one very common species of pet snake that can usually be found coiled up.

What about Ball Pythons?

Ball pythons are known for curling up.

If you didn’t already know this, ball pythons get their name from the well-known ball shape that they can contort into.  Ball pythons are highly defensive snakes and will coil up into a tight ball where just their head is poking out of the middle when threatened.  Even when resting, these snakes like to stay in a tight circular position.  This video shows a great example of how tightly coiled a ball python can be.

If you’re worried about your ball python curling up too much, don’t sweat it!  This is a very normal thing for these snakes to do.  When a ball python really doesn’t want to be handled or doesn’t like something, they will warn you with a hiss!  You won’t miss it if they decide to tell you, “no”!

Final Thoughts

The root of the reason why snakes are usually curled up is that they are trying to protect themselves.  Whether that means staying warm or defending from predators, snakes are safest in a coiled position.  At the most extreme moments, a snake might curl up to prepare to strike at someone or something.

If your pet snake is staying curled up, they might not be feeling comfortable, and you should make sure that everything in their environment is up to par.  But, if you are a ball python owner, this could just be a normal way for them to spend most of their days.

We hope you feel satisfied with our answers and have a better understanding of why snakes curl up!