- Yellow-bellied sea snakes are pelagic: they spend their entire lives at sea — where, it turns out, they get awfully dehydrated. Instead of drinking seawater and excreting the salt, they drink rainwater that accumulates on the surface of the ocean, from so-called “freshwater lenses.” This means they mainly drink during the wet season and get awfully thirsty during drought; prolonged drought (yes, at sea: no rain) could be the reason behind the decline in some sea snake populations. Abstract.
- There is evidence that Burmese pythons have a homing ability: invasive pythons in Florida released 21 to 36 kilometres from their point of capture made their way back to their home ranges; some got to within 5 km of the capture site. Abstract.
- And here’s everything you wanted to know about the fact that snakes have two penises. (Lizards do too, but so what?)
My Correct Views on Everything
↳ Reptiles & Amphibians
Herpetologist Joe Slowinski died on September 12, 2001, in the forests of northern Burma, approximately thirty hours after he had been bitten by a many-banded krait. He was only 38. The Snake Charmer by Jamie James is both a biography of Slowinski and an account of the expedition that cost him his life.
The biography, drawing on family interviews and personal papers, takes up the first two thirds of the book. It reveals a type of character rather familiar to those of us who muck about with snakes: fearless, reckless (he was bitten numerous times) and just a little feral, absolutely fixated on the subject matter, and dripping, perhaps, with a wee bit too much testosterone. A difficult personality who nonetheless engendered fierce loyalty. But Slowinski was more than just Steve Irwin with a Ph.D.: he was stone-cold brilliant, a major contributor to the field of phylogenetics, and in particular to the systematics of elapid snakes — a point that James makes clear, if not at length. (Can’t say I blame him.) The final third reads like a feature article in Outside (and one was written about the incident, by another author), cataloguing the mishaps and bureaucratic nightmares involved in going deep into a restricted area of a country run by a deeply corrupt and paranoid regime, and the heroic attempts to keep him alive once the krait envenomated him while his support networks stateside were dealing with 9/11.
Where The Snake Charmer shines is in its portrayal of Slowinski himself; for all his reckless behaviour, he was not necessarily much for introspection. James has had to do his homework. I would very much have liked to see a bibliography, though, as in several James mentions publications that I wanted to look up for myself. In terms of the herpetology, for someone who is not necessarily well-versed in it James does a creditable job, though it’s clear he’s drawing on secondary sources for his material on snakes, and he makes a couple of minor errors that a herp-aware copyeditor (hi there) would have caught. But I’ve seen much worse. All in all an interesting read.
More on snake handling and religious liberty in the wake of Pastor Coots’s death by snakebite. Snake handling (in the religious sense) is usually banned where it’s practised: is that ban an unconstitutional restriction on religious freedom? Should people be able to put themselves at risk for reasons of faith? Peter Lawler, writing at First Things, and Michael Sean Winters, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, explore whether freedom of religion encompasses snake handling. Via Andrew Sullivan.
Another high-profile snake handling preacher has died from snakebite. But this time there’s a twist: he had a reality show. Kentucky pastor Jamie Coots was one of the co-stars of Snake Salvation, a series on the National Geographic Channel. He was bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake last Saturday, and died after refusing medical treatment, as one does when one is a member of a snake-handling church. News coverage: AP, BBC News, CNN, WBIR TV.
Previously: “Praise the Lord and Pass the Rattlesnakes.”
A python killed a security guard at a Bali resort on Friday, but it would be a mistake to call this a python attack: the 59-year-old guard offered to capture the 15-foot snake, picked it up, and put it his shoulders before the snake constricted him to death. Had the guard simply left the snake alone he would almost certainly still be alive. Experienced snake handlers will tell you two things about handling large constricting snakes: never handle them alone, and never, ever drape them around your neck, from which I adduce that he didn’t know what he was doing.
How innate is a fear of snakes?
It’s an article of faith among those of us who mess around with snakes that a fear of snakes is something that is learned: a child sees a parent freaking out about a snake and figures it out from there.
But that may not be strictly accurate. About a decade ago I was visiting friends who had a fresh litter of baby boa constrictors (one of whom I would take home with me). Several of them were, shall we say, a little nippy. To my surprise, there was something about even a baby boa rearing, hissing and striking at me that triggered a primal corner of my brain. Whoa, I thought to myself: for a moment there I was a monkey in a jungle, afraid of being eaten.
Turns out there might be something to that. Snake detection theory argues that snakes were early predators on primates, and that snake predation selected us to evolve visual and other brain enhancements so that we could spot them faster. (Boggle at the idea that snakes made us smarter.) New research has found neurological evidence of this: pulvinar neurons in macaques respond more quickly to images of snakes than to other images, suggesting that this is deep, hardwired stuff. Article abstract. Via Kingsnake.com; see also io9’s excellent summary.
I never have enough time to work on Gartersnake.info, my website about garter snakes — I’m behind on everything — but it really deserves more attention than I’ve been giving it. Its traffic is seasonal: it gets a huge number of visits during the spring, summer and fall, but hardly any during the winter. Traffic is already slowing down for the season, and I like to work on the site when fewer people are watching, so I’ve been looking at the site stats in the hope that they might help me figure out what to work on next.
Last Saturday we went down to the Canadian Reptile Breeders Expo in Toronto. Our purpose was to pick up a couple of cages — these cages, from these guys. We got a good deal on the cages; they’re frankly not the best in terms of fit and finish but are otherwise quite serviceable, and they’ll allow our Cape gopher snake, leucistic Texas rat snake and Baird’s rat snake to live in larger, more secure dwellings.
But this was also the first reptile show we’d attended in something like eight years, so it also gave us an opportunity to see what reptile shows have become. Huge, for one thing: this was the big, annual, two-day event, with special guests. The available selection was also a surprise: it seemed like every other booth was selling ball python morphs. Boa constrictors, crested geckos and hognose snakes also made strong showings. What breeders have for sale ebbs and flows over the years (I remember one show that was just stuffed with carpet pythons, and I hardly saw any of those this time), and the size and expense of this two-day event might limit who can attend (the margins on less expensive captive-bred animals are pretty terrible). We’re planning to attend a smaller show in October to compare.
We also checked in with a few people we hadn’t seen in almost as long, which was nice, and picked up some equipment that we’d been meaning to get for some time, which was handy.
Here’s a far-from-comprehensive photo album.
When the news broke that a 14-foot African Rock Python had killed two small boys in Campbellton, New Brunswick, reptile keepers were astonished — and some of them were suspicious. Many things didn’t make sense to us: how could the snake constrict two boys at once, they wondered, without them waking up? Why, after constricting them, did the snake release them?
As more news filtered out, it became clearer how it happened. The boys had been to a petting zoo the previous evening and presumably still smelled strongly of farm animal, which offered a plausible explanation to anyone who’s been chewed on by their pet snake because they had the smell of rodent (or fish, or earthworm) on their fingers. And the preliminary autopsy results indicated asphyxiation. The remaining mysteries do not strike me as impossible: the boys could have been sleeping very close together (they were described as inseparable); it can be awfully difficult to wake small children up; and snakes do release after constriction if they can’t swallow them — a 14-foot python can kill an adult but not swallow one.
Even so, some people still insist — usually in the comments of news articles and social media posts, look around and you’ll see it — that there’s something fishy about this: that the snake could not have been responsible. Without actually coming out and saying it, they’re essentially saying that the boys were murdered and the snake was planted to cover up the crime.
Truthers, in other words, have come to the reptile community.
I am utterly unsurprised that Ontario is forming a working group to review exotic pet laws in the province after the python incident in Campbellton. As I mentioned in my Ottawa Citizen op-ed last week, exotic pet ownership is subject to a patchwork of by-laws: in Renfrew County alone, the rules range from a total ban on reptiles to no ban at all depending on the municipality. Provincial law has to date only covered native species in Ontario. It’s a safe bet that’s about to change.
In Quebec, on the other hand, exotic pet ownership is already regulated at the provincial level: venomous snakes and lizards, crocodilians, sea turtles and soft-shelled turtles, for example, are prohibited without a permit; see the Règlement sur les animaux en captivité. (Large snakes are not prohibited by this regulation — at least not yet.)
That may not be enough to convince some reptile-keeping skeptics who have convinced themselves that the python cannot have done this; they may never be convinced. But there appears to be narrative emerging that explains what may have happened. News reports have said that the boys had spent the previous day at the petting zoo. They would have gone to bed smelling like farm animal. The python, encountering them, may have mistaken them for food, killed them, and then lost interest when it realized either that they weren’t food or that they were too big to swallow. (A snake can constrict much larger than it can swallow: a 14-foot python can kill an adult, but not swallow one.)
Meanwhile, a warrant was executed on the property today; 16 animals not legal in New Brunswick — including 10 crocodilians — were seized for relocation to other zoos (CBC News, Canadian Press). We’re learning that Reptile Ocean has had a complicated history: the python was handed to them by the Moncton SPCA in 2002, when it was still a zoo. It gave up applying for a zoo permit and changed to a pet store, at which point a permit for the python was no longer possible, but it didn’t have a pet store permit either, according to the CBC story.
It’s always uncomfortable to be a snake keeper whenever a misbehaving snake makes the news.
The public freaks out and the media goes into overdrive. Headlines are made across the country.
And the headlines have gone global.
Today we learned that the African Rock Python responsible for the deaths of two small boys in Campbellton, New Brunswick has been euthanized and sent for necroscopy. It was somewhere around 14 feet (reports vary) and weighed around 100 pounds. It’s been described as “extremely nervous” around people. Contrary to initial reports, its enclosure was in the upper-floor apartment, not the main floor; it still came down through the ceiling into the living room. CBC News, Global News, National Post, La Presse, RCMP news release.
African Rock Pythons are prohibited in New Brunswick; the Globe and Mail is reporting that Reptile Ocean didn’t have the necessary permit.
Reptile experts contacted for this story invariably express astonishment at how this could have happened. Full-grown African Rock Pythons are not safe snakes, but this is unusual even for them. This has led to a certain amount of expressions of doubt and suspicions that there is more to the story than it seems, as La Presse’s Marie-Claude Lortie intimated on Twitter:
Pourquoi des doutes sur la culpabilité du python ? Parce que partout les spécialistes des reptiles disent que c'est improbable. Voyons voir— marie-claude lortie (@mclortie) August 6, 2013
That said, it’s very hard even for reptile specialists to judge what happened: we’re not privy to all the details, and what details we are privy to are filtered through police officers and reporters, who aren’t reptile specialists. And we should keep in mind that as snake keepers, we’re also feeling a bit threatened and our self-interest may be colouring our response to this incident. As Mme Lortie said, let’s see.
Update: Indian River Reptile Zoo curator Bry Loyst, who is assisting the police investigation, told the Toronto Sun that (1) the python had escaped before and (2) “police told him the children had been at a petting zoo until as late as 10 p.m.” Which is to say that the kids smelled like food: “He guessed that the snake, after escaping its pen, followed the scent of those animals.”
What the hell happened in Campbellton, New Brunswick this morning?
The media is reporting that two boys, aged 5 and 7, are dead after an African Rock Python got into the apartment they were staying in for an overnight visit: CBC News, Global News, National Post. The apartment is above Reptile Ocean, an exotic pet store in Campbellton, from which the python apparently escaped, climbing into the building’s ventilation system until it reached the upstairs apartment. Global News quotes the store owner saying that it crashed through the ceiling into the living room. Whether you’re terrified of snakes or love them, this is a horrifying story. The python has been seized; an autopsy will be performed on the boys tomorrow, which should shed some more light on what happened.
More light is needed, because a lot of this story doesn’t make sense. Even though African Rock Pythons don’t enjoy a good reputation (they’re a lot grumpier, I’m told, than the rather serene Burmese Pythons you usually see in captivity), it’s quite unusual for any large captive snake to attack and kill human beings like that. If it does happen, it’s usually either because it felt threatened or because of what’s called a “stupid feeding error”: the dumb snake smells food and sees movement, and launches itself at the keeper rather than the rabbit or guinea pig the keeper is holding. A python killing two sleeping children isn’t just an awful nightmare, it’s astonishingly unexpected. It’s so unexpected that I’m having a hard time believing it or understanding how it happened. I have so many questions.
The odour of decomposition is strong and pungent. When it wafts from the room in which most of our snakes are kept, it means one of two things: one of the snakes has thrown up its last meal, or one of the snakes has died. Yesterday it was the latter: the eastern garter snake I blogged about three months ago was dead in his cage. We’d just fed him on Saturday, so: aw, man.
This was unexpected, but not necessarily a total surprise: he was 11 years old, which for a garter snake isn’t bad. We have five garter snakes left, all of whom are getting up there: a 9-year-old blue-striped garter, three 10-year-old checkered garters, and a 14-year-old wandering garter. Any of them could go at any time, or be with us for years to come.
Meanwhile, there’s a problem with our Everglades rat snake, Nic (aged 14), who seems to have acquired a neck injury. He’s been refusing his meals (medium-sized rats), which for a mature rat snake is unheard of. It occurred to us that the injury was making him reluctant to tackle big meals, so we fed him a smaller rodent — an adult mouse — on Saturday; he took that. From what I can determine this is the kind of thing that heals on its own, and Nic still has good weight, so we’re hopeful that he’ll be back to strangling previously frozen meals of the proper size in due course.
We have a hummingbird feeder; occasionally, hummingbirds visit it. But they’re there for so short a time that I’m never able to take a photo of one of them. Even if I had the digital SLR in hand, by the time I said, “hey, a hummingbird,” powered up the camera and pointed it at the feeder, the little bird would have been long gone.
The City of Winnipeg has proposed a new animal control by-law. The Winnipeg Free Press reports on the new reptile restrictions, which are getting some pushback from keepers: they call them arbitrary, confusing and unnecessary. The proposed by-law would ban exactly the same reptiles that Ottawa does: boas and pythons over two metres and other snakes over three metres, as well as teiids, iguanids, and monitors over a metre long. So you don’t have to ask where Winnipeg got its list from. (It’s amazing how these by-laws are such a copy-and-paste affair.)
Previously: Keeping Reptiles in Winnipeg.
That thing about the bite of a Komodo dragon being so deadly because their mouths are a cesspool of deadly infectious bacteria? Turns out, not so much. According to Bryan Fry, Komodo dragon mouths are clean; the infections come when water buffalo bitten by a Komodo flee into the water, which is stagnant, filthy and full of bacteria — just the sort of thing to finish off an animal bleeding from many fresh bite wounds. Article abstract. On the other hand, Fry contends that Komodos are mildly venomous, which is apparently controversial in the field. Via io9.
The Loveland, Colorado Reporter-Herald reports on the doctoral research of Anthony Saviola, who’s looking into how proteins in rattlesnake venom called disintegrins, which the snake uses to locate prey after it’s been bitten (a mouse may wander off before dying; the snake follows), can be used in cancer treatment.
The disintegrin protein in snake venom, when injected into cancer cells, binds the outside of the cell via these integrin receptors. Chemotherapy, used most often to help stop the spread of cancer, not only kills cancer cells but also the healthy cells. The disintegrin from snake venom acts differently. “It doesn’t kill the cell,” says Saviola. “It binds the outside and doesn’t allow the cell to communicate with surrounding cells. That’s when cancer becomes cancer … when it spreads throughout the body.”
National Geographic Daily News looks at recent research that fingers the African Clawed Frog (Xenopus laevis), a common laboratory research animal and aquarium pet, as the source of a deadly chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, that has devastated amphibian populations worldwide. At one point amphibian declines were attributed to a number of factors; apparently the focus has sharpened somewhat since I last heard about this. Via Kingsnake.com.
Update, May 20: Nature’s coverage fingers the use of Xenopus in pregnancy tests; once the test was obsolete, hospitals released the frogs, carrying the Bd fungus, into the wild …
Our evening walks — something we’re trying to do more of — have turned into exercises in frog and toad monitoring. We have a good population of amphibians even in town. Last week we couldn’t go anywhere without encountering at least one big American toad; last night I literally tripped over a gray treefrog on the PPJ bike trail.
There’s a wetland in the middle of the town where most of the calls seem to be coming from; the spring peepers started it and were joined by the toads last week. Last night, though, was the first that the gray treefrogs joined the chorus in earnest. We could even get a sense of where in the wetland the calls were coming from: the treefrogs seemed to be around the north and west, the toads were to the south and east, and the peepers were all over the place.
Encountering frogs and toads makes Jennifer deliriously happy. This is an incentive to keep walking.
Visited Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo south of Ottawa for the first time, it seems, in three years. They’ve reorganized the joint considerably since my last trip, making their displays more modular and portable so they can refresh them every few months in order to present a new theme. I took some photos to put the new Nikon D7100 through its paces; the results weren’t too bad, given the limitations of low light and aquarium glass.
I was able to catch a bit of excitement on video: during an alligator feeding demonstration, one of the alligators snatched a sponge and refused to give it up. This required calling in Paul “Little Ray” Goulet on his day off to extract it from her jaws, because the alligators wouldn’t let anyone else do that. When Paul entered the tank, I started recording.
From what I’ve been able to gather, reptiles cannot be kept as pets in the following municipalities in Renfrew County: Pembroke, Petawawa, Laurentian Valley (which surrounds Pembroke) and Whitewater Region (which includes Beachburg and Cobden). The town of Arnprior bans boas, pythons, venomous animals and crocodilians. The other municipalities of Renfrew County don’t appear to have specific bans on exotic animals; their animal control by-laws focus mainly on dogs. But that’s not to say that someone keeping something stupid and deadly would be free and clear; a lot of those municipalities have by-laws prohibiting nuisance, dangerous or vicious animals, and it’s not hard to see how some of the more interesting reptiles might fit that description.
The usual disclaimer — that I may have missed something or that my take on the situation may be totally wrong — applies.
Nowadays I only seem to blog about our snakes when one of them dies of old age. That’s unfortunate, because a lot of you want to hear more about them. But when you’ve been doing weird and odd things for long enough, those weird and odd things get routine, and you forget that they’re weird and odd, and interesting to other people. Not only that, but we haven’t acquired new snakes or bred the ones we have in years, so there isn’t much new to report: just homeostasis with occasional mortality. Add to that the fact that I don’t take pictures of them very often, because snake photography is hard: cages aren’t well lit and you’re shooting through aquarium glass, or you’re photographing them in-hand, or you’re settting up a studio shoot. More work than a casual shot as you pass the cage.
All of which is to say, hey, maybe I should try to take some more pictures of our snakes and say a little bit about them. People might like that.
So Florida’s controversial Burmese python hunt has come to an end. The final tally? About 50 snakes. That doesn’t seem like very many given the huge numbers of pythons — up to 150,000 — estimated to be infesting the Everglades. Wildlife managers say it’s in line with expectations given the season, snakes’ cryptic nature and the inaccessibility of some python-rich territory (Everglades National Park, for example, was off-limits); others believe that the python problem is exaggerated, or that signing up 1,500 or so amateurs to look for them isn’t much more than a PR exercise. Via Kingsnake.com.
There are therapy cats and therapy dogs, and now, it seems, there are therapy snakes as well. The Evening Standard reports that a London clinic is using a corn snake in group therapy sessions for people dealing with addiction, self-harm and eating disorders.
There’s a certain amount of woo in animal-assisted therapy, but I suspect a lot of it comes down to people feeling more relaxed and comfortable when animals are around. And for some people, snakes are no exception. In fact, for some time I’ve felt that snakes would be good therapy animals: they’re quiet, tactile and require a certain amount of concentration to interact with.
This is more than just a hunch on my part: in the past decade, two local autistic children have really responded to our pet snakes. Now two is hardly a sample, and the plural of anecdote is not data, but it’s gotten me thinking. There could be something to this. I’m willing to bet that this isn’t the last we hear of this idea.
Our red milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum syspila) died last night. She’d had another one of those tell-tale hard lumps that signal a snake’s imminent end for a while. She was a bit more than 10 years old, which appears to be young for the species. We never got around to naming her, which is kind of interesting considering that at one point there were two of them.
My ex and I acquired two red milks in late 2002, with plans to breed them. Later, when she was trying to cut down on her snake collection, I inherited her milk snake. Shortly after that we discovered that we had not, in fact, been sold a breeding pair, but two females. Then, nearly five years ago, when we ourselves needed to downsize, we handed the snake that had originally been ours, who had become a little bitey, to a friend who was being covetous; my ex’s snake is the one that stayed with us.
In general I’m not a fan of kingsnakes and milk snakes, but red milk snakes are kind of neat: they’re small, but not so small that they’re hard to feed (like, say, Louisiana milk snakes); they’re not gratuitously flashy like tricoloured snakes; they’re not commonly seen, but not because they’re at risk. They’re underrated, and I always like underrated snakes.
(The photo above is four years old.)
Climate change may be bad for rattlesnakes, but a new study suggests that rat snakes might well come out ahead. After looking at three different populations of rat snake at different latitudes — Texas, Illinois and Ontario — the researchers found that the snakes were active at the same temperature range; it’s just that in Texas the snakes were primarily active at night because it was too hot for them in the day, whereas in Ontario they were active during the day because it was too cold at night. The researchers’ models suggested that “a 3 °C increase in ambient temperature will generally improve thermal conditions for all three populations,” by which I understand that the snakes will have ideal temperatures available to them more often. Article abstract.
Previously: Rattlesnakes and Climate Change.
There were snakes and lizards before and after the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, but that doesn’t mean they were unaffected by the Chicxulub impact: a new study suggests that as many as 83 percent of the snake and lizard species were wiped out, with larger species suffering more than smaller ones — nothing larger than a pound survived. Article abstract. Via CBC News.
- Python Season
- Boa Constrictors Invade Puerto Rico
- A Plague of Pythons
- Glades Herp Partners Charged
- A Guide to State Laws on Herp Collecting
- The Last of the 42
- Regrown Tails Aren’t Perfect Replacements
- Garter Snake Mortality
- ‘Because Snakes Have Value’
- Boa-Killing Virus IDed?
- About That ‘Penis Snake’
- A Cretaceous Snake with a Lizard’s Head
- Lonesome George
- Trapping Toads with Their Own Toxin
- Pythons in the Park
- Part Snake, Part Fish, All Syfy
- Not Really All That Sudden, Actually
- Gartersnake.info Redesign Launches
- ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Rattlesnakes’
- Fungus Spreads to Wild Snakes
- Rattlesnakes’ Family Ties
- How Snakes Drink
- Smallest. Reptile. EVAR.
- Pets vs. Collections
- Never Mind the Bears
- Boa Constrictors Are Looking for a Pulse
- Joe Collins
- That’s Gross, Snake
- Rattlesnakes and Climate Change
- Hellbenders Bred in Captivity
- One of Our Snakes Is Lumpy
- Snakes in a Cave
- Two Lost Snakes Turn Up in Toronto
- Snake Parthenogenesis
- Fortyn’s Orinoco Crocodiles Head South
- Biting Your Cagemate Is Wrong, Snake
- Live Snakes on the Path
- The Nile Crocodile Is Two Species
- George: No Longer Still Not Dead
- Steve Irwin Anniversary
- Dead Snake on the Path
- Saving Lizards by Burning Forests
- Lake Erie Water Snake Delisted
- Caimans Seized in Quebec
- Rare Snake Found Near Whistler
- Because Everyone Needs a Plush Nudibranch
- Lenny Flank’s Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Venomous Snakes
- Judge Rules on Seaway Serpentarium Reptiles
- Bill Haast
- Abandoned Tortoise Numbers Up in Arizona
- Seaway Serpentarium Reptiles in Custody Battle
- Books About Reptile Smuggling
- Keeping Reptiles in Winnipeg
- Garter Snake Spring
- Snakes in Winnipeg Apartment Seized
- Missing Boa Found
- About the Baby Boa Constrictor in Saskatchewan
- What Invasive Pythons Eat
- Bronx Zoo Cobra On the Lam
- Two New Pit Viper Species
- Hitting the Garter Snake Reset Button
- Snotty the Snot Otter
- The Butler’s Garter Snake Has Died
- Aesculapian Ovulation
- Reptile Taxonomy and xkcd
- Hunting Snapping Turtles in Ontario
- Lizards and Lyme Disease