Do snakes have bones in their body? Yes!
It is only a myth is that snakes have only cartilage and no bones. A snake’s skeleton consists of both.
Have more snake skeleton-related questions? Keep reading to get them answered!
Table of Contents
The Naked Truth
- Snakes have bones.
- Snake skeletons consist mainly of a backbone and ribs.
- Snake bones aren’t made of cartilage as many people think.
- Snake skeletons protect the snake’s brain and internal organs.
Do Snakes Have Bones or Cartilage?
Do snakes have bones or cartilage? They have both!
Many people believe that snake bones are made of cartilage, which means they’re not true bones.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Although snakes are remarkably flexible, that’s merely because snakes evolved a more supple skeletal structure.
The bones themselves consist mainly of calcium, as with human bones.
Snake bones by themselves AREN’T sufficient to keep the body together, though.
You can find cartilage between the snake’s skull and the rest of the snake’s body. It also has cartilage between the rib bones, and between other bones that need to flex.
Do Snakes Have Bones or Skeletons?
A snake has bones AND a skeleton.
This question is a bit of a contradiction. Bones and skeletons aren’t separate entities as such.
A skeleton is defined as a supporting structure that gives form to many animal species, including humans.
Skeletons may be internal, as in humans, or external as is the case with beetles and scorpions.
In the case of the snake, its skeleton consists of all the individual snake bones. The bones give a place for all the muscles to attach and protect internal organs.
When combined with the cartilage that keeps them all together, the bones become a skeleton that gives shape, or structure, to the snake’s body.
That answers the question, “Do snakes have skeletons?”
Without bones, a snake would be like a slug: easily squashed.
Without the structure that a skeleton gives, snakes would be little more than a long blob of skin and organs.
People often ask three variants of the same question:
- Do snakes have spines?
- Do snakes have vertebrae?
- Does a snake have a backbone?
The answer to all three of these questions is, yes. The backbone is the spine, which consists of smaller parts known as vertebrae.
It’s the long thin series of bones that keeps all the other bones together.
How Many Bones Does a Snake Have?
People often ask, “How many bones does a snake have?”
Reptiles are unique in many ways, like their eyes, and their skeletons as well.
These creatures have more bones than most animals, and snake bones number in the region of 300-400.
Snake skeletons consist of a skull, backbone, and many rib bones. Though they have a solid cage of rib bones, the snake’s body is full of very stretchy ligaments.
This adaptation gives snakes their appearance of bonelessness which led to the myth that snakes have no bones.
In venomous snakes, the hollow fangs also consist of almost bone-like material.
While they look like bone and have a similar consistency, the fangs are actually syringe-like modified teeth. The venom runs through them in some species, and over them in others.
How Does a Snake’s Jaw Help It to Eat Large Prey?
People often fail to understand why a snake’s mouth can open so wide, and the answer is quite remarkable.
Snake bones and specifically the snake’s skull don’t have the same layout as many other animals.
Unlike humans, the upper jaw bone is attached to the snake’s skull, but the lower jaw bone can dislocate to allow the snake to open its mouth extra wide.
It accomplishes this through the use of flexible ligaments which are incredibly flexible and allow the jaws to move in opposite directions.
Can you imagine having to split your mouth in two every time you wanted to eat?
To learn more about snakes’ eating habits, check out our guide for a general overview of what snakes eat.
How to Check Your Snake for Broken Bones
Snakes have a full complement of bones, and they provide a fair amount of protection.
As with human bones, however, they’re breakable.
As with injury to the human spinal cord or backbone, damage to any of the snake’s many vertebrae can lead to paralysis, loss of movement, or even death.
Every case of a snake with broken bones is different, but there are some signs you can look for when you’re trying to tell:
- The snake seems to consist of two halves. Example: the front half works but the back of the snake seems limp.
- The snake tries to avoid using a certain part of its body.
- There are unusual lumps, bulges, or depressions in a part of the snake’s body where there shouldn’t be.
- The snake is constantly moody or grumpy and doesn’t want you to touch it.
These animals are sensitive, and it’s easy to crush some ribs by squeezing a small snake too hard, or dropping it.
If you suspect that your snake may have a broken bone or bones, the responsible thing to do is to take it to the nearest exotic animal vet.
A vet can check for any signs of internal damage, and arrange an x-ray if it’s necessary.
Remember that a snake needs its skeleton as much as humans do, so ensure that you get it to a doctor as soon as possible.
How Do Snake Bones Work?
Since snakes don’t walk like many other animals, their bone structure is fundamentally different.
They have many bones, but most of them are rib bones.
The others consist mostly of vertebrae (parts of the backbone) which flow from the skull down to the snake’s tail.
To understand how snake bones work, you need a basic understanding of how snakes move.
Snakes employ one of four main types of movement:
- Sidewinding – Sidewinding snakes move from side to side by throwing their head violently forward to one side, forcing the rest of their body to follow. They then repeat this motion to the other side. This gives that typical movement that some venomous snakes are renowned for.
- Serpentine – Snakes that move in a serpentine way move their bodies from side to side, which constantly forces their bodies forward.
- Concertina – Snakes that employ this way of moving pull their bodies into bends and then straighten out to move their bodies forward.
- Caterpillar – These snakes move much like a caterpillar, expanding and contracting parts of their body to inch steadily forward.
As you can see, the common thread with all of these forms of movement is that the snake’s body follows its head, or one part of its body follows another.
That’s the key to a snake’s bone structure.
All of the snake bones are connected through a network of flexible joints and ligaments. This allows the snake to move all of its body by moving some of it.
Because it operates in much the same way as a long, stretchy spring, broken bones can be fatal to a snake.
One break in the wrong place can compromise the snake’s entire ability to use its body.
That’s how the structure part works in a snake’s skeleton. The other part is protection.
Snakes have a higher concentration of bones around easily damaged organs, which form the ribcage, and the brain. which forms the skull.
Why Do Snakes Have Leg Bones?
Few people realize that, while snakes don’t have legs, some snakes retain leg bones.
Boa constrictors and some pythons retain a set of rudimentary leg bones near the base of their tail.
Since these leg bones serve no function, they are referred to as vestigial limbs.
They’re an interesting indicator that snakes have evolved from what was once a lizard with legs.
What caused snakes to lose their limbs while other vertebrates kept theirs?
We can only postulate, but perhaps snake bones evolved to allow the snakes access to a niche that no other vertebrates were exploiting.
Maybe snakes were so successful at exploiting an abundant food source that they didn’t need the advantages and challenges that came with legs.
Or maybe legs were a hindrance in the treetops or plains where the first snake ancestors thrived.
We can only guess why, but snakes have no legs, and it’s unlikely that they’ll be making a comeback.
How Do Snakes Have Hip Bones?
The pelvic spurs, or hip bones, are another name for the leg bones we discussed in the previous section.
As with the human body, and that of many other animals, snake hip bones are attached to the backbone.
The pelvic spurs were once connected to functioning limbs, so the cartilage remains, but the bones are attached to the vertebrae.
In some species, these hip bones are reliable indicators of sex, with males having longer, more pointed “claspers” which they use in courtship.
Snakes have more bones than most animals, and they’re incredibly flexible as a result, but there’s far more to snakes than skeletons.
We have many other articles that discuss the interesting and intricate world of snakes.
Check out our article about how long snakes live for interesting information about snake lifespans.
We also have an in-depth guide to the most dangerous snakes in the world.
If you live around the Eastern United States, you might also find our Florida snake ID guide useful.
Did you know that snakes had bones before you read this article? Let us know in the comments section.