A Herpetological Roundup

Red-sided Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis), Narcisse Snake Dens, May 5, 2014.
  1. Neil Balchan is upset, and so am I. The garter snake researcher visited a wintering den where he was doing field research only to discover that dozens of harmless red-sided garter snakes had been beaten and butchered at the site. CBC News has more.
  2. Here’s TVO on the fragile state of the eastern hognose snake in Ontario.
  3. And here’s the Great Lakes Echo on scientists’ efforts to track the elusive—and, in Ontario, endangered—rat snake.
  4. The Tennessee Aquarium has created the first map of North America’s biogeographical turtle communities.
  5. Burmese pythons might be an invasive scourge in Florida’s Everglades, but they’re not doing well in their natural range. The Guardian looks at conservation efforts on the python’s behalf in Bangladesh.
  6. An interesting read in Smithsonian magazine about taxonomic vandalism—the act of exploiting international rules to name new species without the science to back it up, usually for self-aggrandizing reasons. It’s endemic in herpetology; Raymond Hoser’s name turns up here, and not for the first time.
  7. Tiger keelback snakes are both venomous (it’s a rear-fanged colubrid) and poisonous, thanks to the toads they feed on. The snakes store the toad toxins in their nuchal glands. But do they know they’re packing toad toxins? According to a new study, yes: the snakes’ defensive behaviour changes depending on the toxicity of their diet. [Journal of Comparative Psychology]
  8. Commercial reptile collection has been banned in Nevada, where it’s been more or less unregulated for decades. Nature’s Cool Green Science blog has the story behind the ban.
  9. Sean Graham has some advice for field herpers: instead of spending money and effort on finding rare species for your life list, they should spend that on field work that might actually do some good. “Imagine if instead of trying to find their lifer Pigmy Rattlesnake in Apalachicola National Forest, they instead went looking for them in central Alabama where records are few and patchy? If instead of herping for fun, everyone made their herping count?”1
  10. Using the Internet to identify snakes is definitely a thing; I’ve gotten my share of requests. Sierra, the Sierra Club’s magazine, looks at how the Snake Identification Facebook group does the job. Turns out the challenges the group faces are as much about social dynamics—dealing with frivolous requests, not attacking people for killing snakes—as they are scientific.
  11. If you can’t feed a snake mice, does that mean you can’t keep snakes at all? I answer this question on Quora.

Hand-Feeding Wild Water Snakes

Tim Jones, a retired zoo director, has been hand-feeding the Diamond-backed Water Snakes (Nerodia rhombifer) that live in his private pond. The snakes have become so habituate to his presence that they’re comfortable taking food off his tongs. It doesn’t hurt that water snakes are rather food-motivated (which is a polite way of saying they’re extreme gluttons). You’ll note in the above video, along with shorter videos here and here, that they’re strongly directed by scent: if your fingers or pants smell like fish, it is by snake reasoning fish. Nom.

Now, Jones points out that this is a pond on private property; feeding wild animals is usually a no-no for very good reasons. You’d think that there would be little harm in habituating water snakes to human contact, or having them associate humans with food, and in a perfect world there wouldn’t be. It’s just that very few people would see an approaching water snake as friendly. Thwack. The end.

Some people might be surprised at the idea of tame water snakes, but I’m not. At one point, as some of you may remember, I kept three of them: two Banded Water Snakes (Nerodia fasciata) and a Northern Water Snake (N. sipedon), the latter under a provincial licence. They had insanely voracious appetites, but they were no less tame than any of my other snakes, and I put them to use in educational displays, where they wigged out people who believed water snakes were aggressive.

Basically, they’re just big garter snakes.

But mine were all born in captivity. That matters. It’s not reasonable to expect a wild animal to be friendly or tame: most will assume that a creature a hundred times their size is a threat to them. A snake has no idea that people are scared of it, or that being friendly and non-threatening toward people is a reasonable survival strategy. That’s counterintuitive.

Wild water snakes are bitey because they’re large enough for it to be a worthwhile defence strategy; smaller snakes of the same family, like brown and red-bellied snakes (Storeria), never bite, because there’s no point in doing so. Garter snakes are somewhere in between: some do, some don’t — it depends on the species, the individual and the circumstances.