Most reptiles and mammals, with the exceptions of crocodilians, aquatic mammals and some primates, have a functional vomeronasal organ that detects and perceives semi-volatile chemicals in the environment. This organ is used in detection of prey and is also important for recognition of conspecifics and potential predators. We tested eight species of North American pit vipers for behavioural responses to an ophiophagous (snake-eating) predator, the common kingsnake, Lampropeltis getula. Kingsnakes have a substance in their skin that is recognized by crotalines, which react with a series of defensive responses including, but not limited to, avoidance, fleeing, body bridging and head hiding. The vomeronasal duct of the pit vipers was sutured closed to determine the role of this organ in detection of kingsnakes. Pit vipers with intact and sutured vomeronasal ducts were tested in a neutral cage with a kingsnake and monitored for behavioural responses. Results demonstrated that the vomeronasal organ is important in the recognition of kingsnakes by pit vipers and raises doubts that any other sense plays a major role in this behaviour. Copyright 1999 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.