Watch Your Step!

All, Parks at Home, From the Field

Whether you’re working from home right now or in the office, you know that it’s a good idea to walk away from your computer for a few minutes every once in a while to clear the out the cobwebs and refocus. I decided to step outside to do just that, as it was a sunny, warm day. It didn’t take long to find something stirring.

Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)
This particular garter snake tried to make itself look larger and stare me down to scare me off.

I nearly stepped on a cranky eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), trying to scare me by flattening its head and body to look a little bulkier in size. This is the same tactic used by its relatives, water snakes. Equally similar was its disposition; as I got closer it recoiled and snapped at me several times.

I likely disturbed its sun basking, trying to warm up after emerging from brumation (a reptile’s winter slow-down, similar to hibernation). In fact, it was still dusty with dried mud or limestone from its underground den.

Garter snakes overwinter in large groups and emerge as soon as it starts to warm up at the peak of their breeding season, which is now, March and April. During that first day or two of emergence, some males have been found to release a pheromone that mimics the females’, attracting several unsuspecting courters to form a large aggregation. The advantage for this cold-blooded, sluggish male is a little cover and heat transfer so that he is less vulnerable to predation until he warms up a bit.

Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)
With its tongue out, this eastern garter snake was smelling the air, trying to determine if I was a predator.

Unlike most snakes that lay several leathery eggs to hatch later (making them oviparous, or animals that lay their eggs, with little or no other embryonic development within the mother), the female garter snake retains the eggs in her body until the young hatch about 100 days later. In this case, the egg shell is reduced to a thin membrane and the young emerge from the mother ready to fend for themselves, giving the appearance of live birth (making garter snakes ovoviviparous, the reproduction in animals in which embryos that develop inside eggs remain in the mother’s body until they are ready to hatch).

Although they sometimes will eat small mice, a garter snake’s diet is more varied than most snake species. They dine on insects, worms, small fish, small frogs and salamanders. A garter snake’s saliva is toxic to amphibians and other small animals, and they may possess a mild neurotoxic venom. But no worries, as they have no fangs and their gums outsize their teeth considerably – a defense without a proper delivery system. I can vouch for that fact that they are harmless, as I’ve been bitten more times than I can count by mouths that open impossibly wide and draw just a tiny bit of blood.

What is more off-putting to me than a garter snake bite is the foul musk they release from the cloaca when handled. They also flail while they do this, so it goes everywhere, and you can count on smelling terrible for the rest of the day. One particular successful snake-catching day (the things we do for programs!), I could still smell the musk the next day even though I showered and changed my clothes.

Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)
Deeming me neither a threat nor a predator, this snake slithers on to sunnier pastures.

Given the fact that this particular snake was probably on a mission today, I settled for following it a little while and just grabbing some photos, then watching it disappear into the grass. A narrow escape from what could’ve been a few foul-smelling days.


Suzanne Roth, Education Manager, Farbach-Werner Nature Preserve

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