The courting dynamics of snakes are mostly shrouded in mystery: it is not easy to catch these so elusive reptiles "on the most beautiful". Recently, however, a series of comparative studies suggests that even the little we believe we know about "sex and snakes" may be wrong.

Strong sex. Let's face it: the strong one is the female. For a long time it was considered that these had a secondary role in mating, subjected to the will of the males. But the roles are probably overturned: in these reptiles, the fairer sex is larger (the females of anacondas, for example, are 4.7 times larger than the males).

Image An anaconda in search of a soul mate. | Shutterstock

Did you have fun? Males, on the other hand, are not territorial, do not compete directly against each other for mating and sometimes, after the party, they end up swallowed by their partner, who thus ensures adequate food supplies for the next 7 months of fasting pregnancy.

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Among the snakes is the female to take the initiative, with a bombardment of pheromones that begins at the end of hibernation, during the moult. While changing skin, the female releases chemicals that signal size and willingness to mate: males have every interest in finding well-placed, more fertile and capable of generating stronger offspring partners.

Image A bunch of common garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) around a female. | Shutterstock

Exaggerated orgies. The pheromone cocktail drives the suitor crazy … and not just one. If the males tend to peg on a single partner, courting to the point of exhaustion, among the females of many species there is polyandry: the object of contention is placed at the center of a heap of males (the phenomenon was observed among the flying serpents of paradise, in Borneo, among the anacondas, among the garter snakes and many others). In the most extreme cases, the ratio can reach one female per 100 males, with rituals that last even a month.

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The best genes. For the female, polyandry is advantageous because it selects the best spermatozoa, but it is not clear how it chooses from whom to be fertilized: what is known is that, through genital contractions, it can interrupt unwanted relationships and control times. In some cases, the latest arrivals are the favorites because they guarantee, by inserting a gelatinous substance in the reproductive tract of the partner, that no one else can join them later.

Staying last, however, is a big risk: among the anacondas, in fact, the last arrived has a good chance of being also the meal of the female. After so much effort, food is needed.