Snake Fangs 101
Table of Contents for this Hub Series on Snake Venom
Fangs are Specialized Teeth for Delivering Venom
Double-fangs in a Front-fanged Snake
What is a snake fang?
Before we can describe what front- or rear-fangs mean, we must first define what constitutes a fang. A fang is simply an enlarged, specialized tooth (one of a symmetrical pair of teeth) on the upper, outer row of teeth. Whereas nonvenomous snakes possess homodont dentition (with all teeth possessing the same, fish-tooth-like structure: re-curve, non-hollow, needle-like teeth designed for grasping and holding prey), venomous snakes actually possess heterodont dentition (having a pair of enlarged, specialized fangs in addition to the other teeth).
Fangs are structures that have evolved to provide an effective means of delivering venom into the body tissues of prey, which is why they are said to be absent in nonvenomous snakes. Snake fangs are similar to "normal" teeth in that they are replaced continuously throughout the snake's life. Interestingly, only one set of fangs can be functional (effective at transporting venom) at any given time (due to the physical mechanisms involved; each fang must "lock" into place before becoming "active"). This partially explains the phenomenon of "dry" bites, where a snakebite doesn't involve the injection of venom, because if one or both fangs are damaged and/or are in the process of being replaced, then little to no venom will be injected. The photo on the right, "Fangs are Specialized Teeth for Delivering Venom," illustrates an accurate side-by-side comparison of an average adult (~4' long) Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica) front-fang (which is just over an inch long) and an average adult (~6' long) Mangrove Snake (Boiga dendrophila) rear-fang.
This book examines both front- and rear- fangs in great detail.
Double-fangs in a Rear-fanged Snake
Closeup of a Grooved Rear-fang
Kinds of Snake Fangs
There are a couple of different types of fangs, possessing varying degrees of effectiveness at transporting venom into prey/predators. Fangs can be little more than enlarged teeth, or enlarged with a groove along the side for channeling/directing the flow of venom into an open wound (with the groove being variable in length/depth), or enlarged with a hollow core (like a hypodermic needle). As far as venom transport efficiency is concerned, here are the fang types in order of least efficient to most efficient: enlarged < (enlarged+grooved) < (enlarged+hollow). Whereas rear-fanged snakes possess either enlarged or enlarged/grooved fangs, front-fanged snakes all possess enlarged/hollow fangs.
In addition, rear-fangs very rarely exhibit any degree of mobility, whereas some front-fangs are attached to a rotatable maxilla that is capable of swinging the fangs into an "active," erect position from a folded position at rest. Front-fangs may grow to be over 2" in length, much larger than any rear-fangs, as seen in the above photo ("Fangs are Specialized Teeth for Delivering Venom"). Classifying things further, there are four different types of specific dentition that snakes may have. Viperids, which tend to have enlarged/hollow front-fangs on a short maxilla that is capable of being rotated into an "active" position, have solenoglyphous dentition. Elapids, which tend to have enlarged/hollow front-fangs on a large, immobile maxilla, have proteroglyphous dentition. Venomous colubrids, which tend to have either enlarged or enlarged/grooved rear-fangs at the back of a large, immobile maxilla, have opisthoglyphous dentition. Nonvenomous snakes (including nonvenomous colubrids), which lack fangs, have aglyphous dentition.
You may take the quiz below to help reinforce your understanding of snake fangs before moving on to the next hub, which further explores the differences between front- and rear-fanged snakes. You can also check out the video below, which shows a front-fanged snake envenomating and releasing its prey in order to allow it to succumb to the venom without fear of reprisal. If you would like to learn more about snake fangs, please see the Amazon links below for some useful book resources. If you have further questions about snakes that are not addressed by this article on snake fangs (or any other articles in this Snake Venom hub series), please see my hub on FAQs About Snakes.
Types of Snake Teeth
This book discusses snake fangs in a way that is easy to understand.
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Front-fanged Snakes are Highly Efficient at Injecting Venom and Often Bite-and-release Prey
This hub is intended to educate people ranging from snake experts to laymen about the particulars of the different kinds of snake fangs. This information contains generalizations and by no means encompasses all exceptions to the most common "rules" presented here. This information comes from my personal experience/knowledge as well as various primary (journal articles) and secondary (books) literature sources (and can be made available upon request). All pictures and videos, unless specifically noted otherwise, are my property and may not be used in any form, to any degree, without my express permission (please send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org).
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This book explores the envenomation mechanisms (fangs/stingers) of a wide variety of animals.
© 2012 ChristopherJRex