We have heard all sorts of myths about snakes all our lives like they don’t have bones or have to dislocate their jaws to eat their prey, even the misconception that you have to suck out their venom if they bite you. Alongside those, there is also the myth that snakes are blind or only see black and gray. But is that really the case?
Snakes can see colors, but not as well as humans do. Unlike humans, who are trichromatic, snakes are dichromatic, meaning they can see only the two primary colors – green and blue. However, many species of snakes can see anything from the visible spectrum to the infrared or ultraviolet range.
This article will shed more light on snake vision, explaining the colors these cold-blooded reptiles see in greater detail. I will also discuss how certain snakes have adapted to poor color recognition. Let’s begin.
What Color Does the Snake See?
Scientists have been researching light-sensitive pigments, genes for these pigments, and light lenses in snake eyes for years. They have discovered that snakes have three visual pigments, with two of them being located in the cones in their retinas.
Snakes are dichromats, meaning they can only see two primary colors, green and blue, well. This does not, however, mean that snakes don’t see other colors; it just means they don’t differentiate them as well as we do.
What Colors Can Pythons See?
Pythons are short-sighted snakes that don’t see colors well, but like other snakes, they see the world in blue and green. Because of this, pythons have eyes that concentrate better on moving things than stationary ones and are better adapted to seeing movement than color.
Since they hunt in the dark and most of their prey uses camouflage, seeing only two colors doesn’t make a world of difference to them. Also, being movement-oriented means a lot to them during shedding, when their vision deteriorates further due to the skin they shed that often ends up covering parts of their eyes.
How Good Is a Snake’s Vision?
There is a significant difference between the eyesight of snakes that hunt during the day and those that hunt at night, and it is connected with the anatomy of their eyes, more precisely with the shape of their pupils.
The snake’s vision isn’t that good since they only see the world in green and blue. However, as part of their adaptation, snakes are better placed to detect moving substances than static items, which allows them to stalk and hunt their prey.
Snakes that are active during the night have slightly worse eyesight, but they have slit pupils that can regulate the amount of light entering the eyes to prevent damage that can result from encountering sudden sources of light. They can also only focus their eyes on moving targets.
The slit pupils allow for more precise eyesight in low-light conditions. Unlike them, diurnal hunters can see quite well with their large, round pupils that enable them to receive more light from their environment and form a clearer picture.
Some species of snakes, like the Chrysopelea ornata and the Ahaetulla nasuta rely heavily on their keen eyesight while hunting. These snakes have even developed UV-blocking lenses in their eyes to help them see more clearly during the day.
“The precise nature of the ancestral snake is contentious, but the evidence from vision is consistent with the idea that it was adapted to living in low light conditions on land,” says the author of the aforementioned study that delves into the way snake eyes work and the genes that produce visual pigments in snakes, David Gower.
This means snakes used to live like burrowers and have adapted to living conditions with a low amount of light, making their eyesight far from the most important tool in their bag of tricks for navigating space and processing the environment.
They have developed a keen sense of smell and have a tongue that collects chemicals from the air permitting them to sense from which direction the smell is coming. This is vital while moving in their environment, but most importantly when hunting their food.
Can Snakes See White?
Although snakes can see visible light and the color white, they can’t process it the same way humans do. This is because snakes can process only two primary colors, blue and green.
In their eyes, snakes have rods and cones – protein receptors whose function is to detect distinct wavelengths of perceptible light. This means that snakes can’t perceive white as a color but see everything in shades of green and blue.
Can Snakes See in the Dark?
Snakes can see in the dark, but not very well. They have, however, adapted to it in a myriad of different ways. Some have developed infrared heat detection and thermoreceptors. Moreover, snakes use vibration and Jacobson’s organ to navigate space in the dark.
All snakes detect vibrations from the air and the ground with their inner ears, while thermoreceptors are specific for vipers. They have slits on their faces that are sensitive to heat, allowing them to sense their prey or predators.
Jacobson’s organ is located in every snake’s nasal cavity, allowing all the chemicals collected by their forked tongue to provide them with information about their immediate environment faster than sharp vision would permit.
So although snakes might not have the best view in the dark, their other senses set them up perfectly for night hunting.
Can Snakes See Infrared Light?
Vipers, boas, and pythons can see infrared light, but in a different way than we imagine. They do not perceive the infrared spectrum (with its shorter wavelengths than visible light) with photons of light but with something called pit organs.
Pit organs are slits located on the snake’s face and are a part of the snake’s somatosensory system. They have a membrane that can detect a warm body from a meter away by activation of protein channels that react to heat.
This happens on a molecular level – the TRPA1 ion channel in the nerve fibers (trigeminal ganglia) of the pit interprets infrared radiation as heat, not light. The pit organ also detects touch and pain, not only temperature, but it does not receive any information through light, making seeing infrared light through temperature one of the snake’s superpowers.
Can Snakes See Red Light?
Snakes cannot see the color red. This means that anything they see in front of them, whether red, orange, pink, or basically anything that contains a red hue, they perceive only through a small amount of green and blue pigments that this particular shade of red contains.
Therefore, to a snake, a warm red flower will look green if it contains even a minuscule amount of green pigment, while a purple one will look blue.
Although many people think snakes only see in black and gray, snakes do, in fact, see in color, regardless of the fact that they are limited to only two colors. They just don’t see all the colors or perceive them the same way we do.
But we should keep in mind that the snake’s vision is not the most important nor their primary method of perception. Through a combination of vibrations, smell, and chemical detection, they seem to find their way through life effortlessly.