Comparative analyses of behavior have an underappreciated potential for revealing the role of ethoecological factors in the origins of higher taxa. Twenty-seven species (13 genera) in the advanced family Colubridae exhibited 19 patterns of coil application; one or two patterns were usually consistent within a genus. Forty-eight species (26 genera) in the primitive families Acrochordidae, Aniliidae, Boidae, and Xenopeltidae usually used a single pattern, despite differences in age, size, shape, habitat, and diet. This implies the shared retention of an action pattern used by their common ancestor no later than the early Paleocene. Constriction must have been used as a prey-killing tactic very early in the history of snakes and might have been a behavioral "key innovation" in the evolution of their unusual jaw mechanism.