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Recently there has been this video going around of a snake that had been decapitated. Its body swung around to the decapitated head and the head attacked the body on "reflex". Now we know that most reflex arcs bypass the brain. So if it is the case that this strike attack is reflex then how is that suppressed when the snake is alive? Why aren't snakes always reflexively attacking themselves?

Here is the video.

Is this some other phenomenon than reflexive attack?

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2 Answers

It seems that National Geographic were just as curious, in their interview in this article with James Murphy, he states the answer to your final question - that even though the snake is dead, it can still reflexively 'attack' the nearest object - in this case, the remains of its own body - as it is not attached, it is a 'foreign object' and the reflexes result in an 'attack'.

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I guess one can presume that from reading that article but it is not clear. "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. " Yes that is understandable but then suppose its tail slithered by the snake's head when it was attached and the snake was alive... What would prevent that same reflex to not strike? Or is it only a reflex for dead snakes? –  Michael Papile Aug 19 '13 at 16:03
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I think it is reflexive for a dead snake, as any higher order processes (higher than reflexes) have ended on death. –  user3795 Aug 19 '13 at 19:44
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+1 to Damien, just a few more thoughts.

If you notice it took several whacks of the head to get the bite reflex to trigger. I know that many animals have reflexes that will suppress other reflexes so that fluid motions can be achieved (righting reflexes are examples).

I don't know if anyone has studied the species enough to know this definitely, but I bet that snakes behaviorally/reflexively doge their own tail so that they don't keep hitting themselves in the head. After the head is severed, higher level restrictions are lost, fight paths are probably lose inhibition, and the reflex to bite anything hitting you in the mouth takes over. That said it probably had to hit the mouth just right to get this to trigger.

I'm looking for some definitive information on bite reflexes in snakes, and will edit if I find anything relative. I have experience from studying amphibian reflexes years ago, and I have feeling this general trend will hold true for snakes (but I'm looking for someone who has actually studied it).

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Interesting. Yes perhaps there is inhibitory behaviors or reflexes to avoid the snake's tail bumping into its face, thus avoiding the strike. I am interested if anyone ever studied this, but you are probably right. –  Michael Papile Aug 20 '13 at 18:59
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