I have been asked recently to create a resource for understanding snake body language for the purposes of embarking on an operant conditioning training plan. I will do so in this blog today. But first, a few disclaimers.
The following will be the observations of both myself and those I've worked closely with in training snakes, including the fantastically skilled reptile trainer and just amazing human being Kate Silveira.
This will not be all inclusive, as it is a work in progress and every individual is different. By the same token, it is not set in stone and may change as more research comes forward. That said, it has currently held true for a significant number of diverse species, from a variety of backgrounds, in a variety of environments, so I feel quite confident in releasing this working copy of what I look for when I am handling and training snakes. Without further introduction, here we go.
Examples of RELAXED body language:
This is where we want to live when training and handling, the majority of the time.
Loose-NOT LIMP-body. The snake is not rigid, but you can feel and see that they are carrying their own weight and moving with ease.
Slow, fluid, deliberate movements. If they are making very quick or jerking movements, you are likely heading towards over-stimulation. While this might not yet be a stress response, you will want to make sure that the environment is appropriate for the activity, and that safety measures are in place, including for the animal.
Consistent tongue flicking at an even rate. If tongue flicking stops, there is other relaxed body language present. In general, there is not a speed that is "too fast", but be sure to take in the picture of the whole animal.
Orients towards stimuli in a fluid manner. If movements are very quick or exaggerated when orienting to something new, you may be moving towards over-stimulation or a stressed animal.
Examples of MODERATE OR ACUTE STRESS signals:All stress is not bad. There is scientific data to suggest that a certain amount of eustress is healthy. If you see these behaviors though, you will want to slow down, take in the whole picture that the animal is giving, identify and note antecedents, and be ready to slow or stop the session. You want to be mindful of how long these behaviors are present and how quickly the animal is able to go back to a relaxed state.
Tense, tight or stiff body. Tightly wrapping an object that is not prey or tightly squeezing into hide. Parts of the snake may be stiff and ungiving if handling or the snake be wrapping tightly to an object or the handler.
Lack of tongue flicking. Usually in conjunction with other signs of stress. This does not in and of itself indicate a stressed animal.
Freezing. This is exactly what it sounds like and you've likely seen it in a snake, other species, or even in yourself. Tongue flicking is usually the first behavior to return, and show you that the animal is relaxing.
Highly reactive to touch or movement.-Often in conjunction with other stress signals, including hyper-fixating.
Raising head high or arching in upper third of body, in conjunction with any other signs of stress. Snakes may raise their head to explore. That is not necessarily a sign of stress. This will look more like the first third of the body is coiled back or up and other stress signs will likely be present including freezing and or hyper-fixating. This can have a lessor to more intense presentation. You will want to take some pressure off and wait for the animals to show signs of a more relaxed state.
Signs of SEVERE STRESS or OVER-STIMULATION:
Stop. Get the animal into a safe place and allow them time to relax. Depending on the individual, they may require several days or longer to recover and be ready to train again. Animals with a longer reinforcement history and larger trust bank, may be ready much sooner, but keep in mind that there is little data concerning stress hormones in snakes and it may be beneficial to give them some time off anyway to allow them to fully physically recover. Until we know more, I personally, will error on the side of caution. That said, these behaviors should not be occurring, with a mindfully developed, science based, training plan. But, sometimes circumstances can happen out of our control. And, so here are the signs that something highly threatening or scary has occurred and the animal needs to be returned asap to wherever they feel most safe.
Urinating or defecating in conjunction with other stress signals. This will look functionally different than an animal that just needs to relieve themselves. Multiple other signs of stress will be evident. The animal will likely be moving quickly. Stool may be looser than normal. Sometimes the animal may partially prolapse due to straining.
Musting. The snake will release a substance that smells terrible. To those who have not experienced it before, it may loose like diarrhea, urates, or strong urine or all three. This is a defensive behavior, and one you should not see. The animal has been pushed too far. If the animal is doing this seemingly instantly when you approach, you will need to look closely at how you can better arrange antecedents.
Tail wagging. You may see this when an animal is aroused and not stressed, if for example engaged in an activity where food is present. This does indicate high arousal, so the handler will want to be aware that the environment and the animal are safe. When seen outside the confines of a feeding activity, it is almost 100 percent of the time a defensive action of a highly stressed snake.
Repeated erratic attempts to move away. If handling, the snake will be moving very quickly, and you will likely feel parts of the body go very squishy, especially where hands are contacting the body. Other parts of the animal will likely feel very tense. If in habitat, the animal may climb up walls, pace at super speed, and cling to anything it can. This behavior may quickly escalate to striking, musting and or urinating and defecating.
Heavy breathing. Huge, deep, bellowed breaths. While the snake may occassionally have short bursts of heavier breathing than normal when exerting mental or physical energy, it should not be to this extent.
Going completely limp or feigning death. Some species and individuals are more likely to do this than others.
Striking at anything or anyone in the environment that is not prey. Erratic behavior and the snake may or may not make contact with anything or anyone. Remember aggression is expensive and the animal is exerting a lot of unnecessary energy. This is a defensive behavior, and you can assume if not rehearsed, the animal feels highly threatened. If it is rehearsed, you will want to mindfully consider how you may change antecedents and reinforcment history to train an incompatible behavior or handle this behavior change in an equally low stress manner. Angry is not a helpful label in this situation.
Anorexia. This is typically a symptom of chronic stress, but can also occur due to an acute highly stressful event.
Happy Training Everyone!