So here’s a fun fact—I don’t understand reproductive people. With the majority of the adult population either actively reproducing or having a history of reproduction, this poses a bit of a conundrum for me. I don’t get why first birthdays are a big deal. This supposed “cuteness” of newborn human babies is lost on me. The invasion of personal space that a pregnant woman endures flies completely over my head. But finding a female snake and running my thumb down her belly, feeling the embryos or eggs shift beneath the pressure, is one of the most exciting things I have experienced this year.
Yeah. Go figure.
Don’t worry, I didn’t hurt her or the babies. I probably stressed her out a bit, but I’m sure she is over it. Reptiles tend to stress easily, but they also don’t hold on to things that don’t merit holding-on. Had I tried to eat her, she may have developed a response to the stimulus of smelling a human or being picked up by primate fingers.
This beautiful female Common Gartersnake allowed me to handle her after exposing her in Beana Bern’s garden. Many people see a gartersnake and think—if they think anything other than “ewww!”—that it’s just another gartersnake and nothing to get excited about. Let me tell you all of the exciting things about my new snake friend.
For starters, she has a lovely turquoise tint to the light spaces on her checkerboard. Garters have three lines running longitudinally down the snake, and the black area between the lines is actually a checkerboard pattern that can be exposed or hidden as warranted. Apparently, predators have a harder time following an object with lines moving away from them. I don’t think I have ever seen two garters that looked the same. There is always some variation in hue, in shade, in visible life experience.
This particular snake had a broken rib that had healed a bit funny and a small scar over the proud flesh. When snakes sustain injuries to their skin or scales, they will shed more frequently. They can’t just heal the wound the way we do. Each successive shed heals it a bit more. They heal very slowly, but they are also very resilient. I had a snake with a broken spine that maintained full use of his body above and below the break (motility and digestion), and showed no signs of pain when the healed injury was touched.
My gartersnake friend had two lumps of food in her belly, as well as ten developing embryos. Some garters are nippy, and most will musk if handled. The musk is purely for defense—it is not poop, but it stinks just as much as if it were. They will often musk while whipping their tail around for maximum effect. To tell the truth, most of Vermont’s snakes are too small to even break human skin. Even if one does make you bleed, the wound will be gone in a matter of days (with the exception of the venomous Timber Rattlesnake). I would rather put up with a constantly biting snake than one who is musking. This one apparently didn’t know my preferences, and musked all over my hands.
Nearby the Common Gartersnake and under the same tarp, I found a Red-bellied Snake. This is a very small snake that inhabits much of Vermont. Although our state is home to eleven different snake species, the Northeast Kingdom drops mercury too low for all but three. If you see a larger snake with lines, it’s a garter. If you see a gray or brown one, it’s either a redbelly or a Ring-necked Snake. The visual differences between the two smaller species are in the common names.
The redbelly at Beana’s was actually the first one I have ever found. She was calm and inquisitive, and had nine developing embryos in her belly. Vermont’s snakes are rather unique in that there is a correlation between keeled scales and method of birthing. It is unintentional, I’m sure, and it really can’t be applied to snakes in general, but it’s pretty neat nonetheless. Snakes with keels—raised lines on their scales—give birth to live young. Snakes with smooth scales lay eggs.
I think most of us grew up knowing that reptiles lay eggs. It’s one of their defining features, right? Well…sort of. Some reptiles give birth to live young, but it’s not in the same way that mammals do. Each embryo is enclosed within a sac—essentially a thin-shelled egg. They are not sustained by the mother’s body, but rather by a yolk within the sac. They “hatch” internally and are expelled from the mother’s cloaca after hatching.
Early in the week, Hannah Bowen spotted this wonderful girl during our Loons & Limnology class. She lazily swam alongside a tethered canoe and disappeared under a mess of riparian grass. After a while, Hannah saw her again climbing up the bank, and I managed to grab her before she disappeared again. She had twelve embryos in her body. I have to admit, I’m pretty impressed by the fecundity of such a small snake.
I’ll conclude this week with a challenge: no matter how you feel about snakes, I want you to do something to become more comfortable with them. If they totally gross you out, this could just be something as simple as making an effort to see their individual personality. Don’t push yourself too hard. I am all for challenge by choice—too many people have been scarred for life by being forced to touch or hold an animal that may have mildly perturbed them. But if you’re ready for the next step of touching a snake’s tail while someone else holds it, or even holding one yourself, let me know. I’ll be too happy to help.