How do snakes breathe when they eat?

Snakes are reptiles that live all around the globe. They are cold blooded animals that rely on their lungs to take oxygen into their bodies and expel carbon dioxide.

Snakes have two types of respiratory organs: The trachea (windpipe) and the lung. The windpipe is where the oxygen enters the body. The lung is where the oxygen leaves the body.

Although their breathing mechanisms are similar to ours, their lung functions and shape are adapted for their long, slender bodies. 

Can snakes breathe underwater? 

No species of snake have gills or the ability to breath underwater, even aquatic snakes. 

Species like the aquatic elephant trunk snake have adapted to hold their breath for 30 minutes at a time breathe for 2.5-3 minutes at a time and then submerge again for another 20-30 minutes. 

A study from 1974 discovered that aquatic snakes can “breathe” through their skin. Although you can’t physically see their lungs expand, an aquatic snake, called Pelamis Platurus (or the yellow-bellied sea snake), removes oxygen from the water and expels carbon dioxide through its skin. 

What about ball pythons?

The Left Lung

Like us, snakes have a left and right lung, but they don’t have equal portions. 

A snake’s left lung is practically useless and even non-existent in some snakes. A study done on ball pythons(Python regius) examining the lungs of 17 snakes omitted the endoscopic procedure on the left lung since they were absent or reduced. 

Regardless of the small or non existent left lung, snakes still thrive on the use of one side. 

How do snakes breathe while eating?

While eating, a snake will push their glottis forward creating a pathway for air to enter the lungs. A glottis an opening that you can see from the snakes open mouth that leads to a snake’s airways.

Snakes are known to consume prey that are much larger than their girth, sometimes up to 10 times their size. The forward-facing glottis is what helps them achieve that without sacrificing oxygen intake. 

Even though snakes sometimes lack a left lung, their airway anatomy looks similar to ours. They have a trachea(or windpipe) that leads to a bronchi, which then turn into the crown of the lungs. 

They have a slit-like glottis made of soft tissue and cartilage which they can open and close as they please.

The difference between us and snakes is that a snake’s glottis is a lot closer to the front of the mouth which helps them breathe even when they’re eating.

How do snakes breathe in sand? 

Many snake species have the ability to burrow underground and some will completely submerge themselves in sand, mud, or water. 

Snake’s that burrow in sand have an over hanging scale called a rostral scale that blocks sand from entering the snake’s airways. 

In some cases, moist sand will pack around the snake’s nostrils, preventing inhalation of smaller grains of sand.