Okay, so apparently snakes have clitorises. The Guardian reports: “In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers found that snakes have two individual clitorises—hemiclitores—separated by tissue and hidden by skin on the underside of the tail.” Direct link to the study. Not surprising there are two: male snakes have two hemipenes, after all. And this actually might explain something we noticed in the female snakes in our care. Snakes are normally sexed by the differences in their tails: females’ tails are thin and taper sharply, whereas males’ tales are thicker and taper less, because that’s where they park their hemipenes when not everted. We’ve spotted in a few of our female snakes a bit of a bulge in their tail past their vent, which was confusing unless they went on to lay eggs or give birth (that’s kind of definitive). Was something wrong, or was it just some benign fatty tissue? Maybe it was this instead.
Reptiles & Amphibians
Social Media and Snake Identification
Local snake identification groups on Facebook have been reducing the number of snakes being killed out of fear, Emily Willingham reports for Scientific American. The work of snake ID groups, such as Facebook’s Snake Identification group or Reddit’s r/whatsthissnake subreddit, has been covered before (see Sierra in 2017), and now that I no longer respond to snake ID requests myself, I point people to these very groups. The interesting twist here is that these are local groups, focusing on a specific region (e.g. north Texas). Not only is local expertise more relevant and reliable (r/whatsthissnake gets ID requests from every continent), but a local group might also help someone get on-site assistance (not every snake problem can be solved remotely).
Can Garter Snakes Recognize Themselves?
A research paper published last September in Behaviour found evidence that common garter snakes were able to distinguish their own scent from that of a littermate fed the same diet. The implication is that garter snakes are able to recognize themselves. Is this the chemosensory equivalent of the mirror test—evidence that even garter snakes have theory of mind? That’s proving controversial: see the National Geographic coverage. In any event, new research continues to suggest that snakes are smarter and more social than we previously thought (previously). Meanwhile, our 23-year-old California kingsnake decided to bite himself while his cage was cleaned yesterday: he, at least, still seems to have trouble recognizing himself (kingsnakes are really stupid).
Reptile Outreach and the Pandemic
Among the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic are those that do reptile education and displays. In the Ottawa area, both Little Ray’s and Reptile Rainforest are running fundraisers to help them keep their doors open. (You can support them at those links.)
As I see it, the problem is (at least) twofold:
- Reptile education and outreach is fundamentally tactile. It cannot be done remotely: the whole point of the operation is to at least be in the same room as the scary beastie, if not touch it. I cannot stress enough the good that can be done, in terms of overcoming phobias and promoting wildlife conservation, by a friendly snake in a friendly environment.
- It’s a business with a lot of overhead: you have to feed, heat and house the animals regardless of whether you’re allowed to open to the public. Some of those animals can be very expensive to feed, heat and house—and let’s not even talk about vet bills. And at the scale of Little Ray’s, which I believe has something like 900 animals, those overhead costs add up to a substantial amount (on the other hand, Darren at Reptile Rainforest is a one-man operation).
It’s a very particular business model, in other words: one that doesn’t necessarily fall within the parameters of government supports, one that can’t pivot to remote/online, and one that can’t simply shut down and wait the pandemic out. Hence the problem.
Underweight and Long-lived
Ghost, our male albino checkered garter snake, was an inadvertent case study on whether caloric restriction correlates with longevity. He was never a particularly enthusiastic feeder, preferring smaller, less frequent meals: if you tried to feed him weekly or even biweekly, or a meal commensurate with his size, he’d be prone to refuse. Even by male garter snake standards he was underweight, and in recent years he looked positively gaunt. Fragile, even. Yet somehow he managed to live longer than any other garter snake in our care. When he died yesterday, he’d been with for more than 16 years: I got him in April 2005. And he wasn’t a baby then: I think he was born in 2003. Which would have made him 18½ or so when he finally went—older than Extrovert, our female wandering garter snake, who died in 2016 at the age of 17.
Vancouver Island’s Invasive Lizards
European wall lizards (Podarcis muralis) have invaded Vancouver Island. Traced to a release by a roadside zoo that closed down in 1970, the lizards’ island population is now estimated at between 500,000 and 700,000. While some people enjoy having the lizards around—we don’t have many of them in Canada—it’s still an invasive species capable of doing damage. “Hanke assesses the threat to B.C.’s ecosystems as ‘an eight, if not a nine.’ He worries for native species such as the sharp-tailed snake, the Pacific chorus frog and the northwestern alligator lizard. The wall lizard feasts on them all.”
Snakes on a Plane, 15 Years Later
Today is the 15th anniversary of the release of that snakesploitation film masterpiece, Snakes on a Plane. Only it was about as far away from a masterpiece as you could get. On io9, Sean Lussier looks back at the hype, the disappointment and the motherfucking snakes. “The actual ‘snakes on a plane’ part of the movie is great, but the idea itself is so absurd and so small, it takes way too long to set up, and no time at all to fix, leaving a movie with a boring beginning, amazing middle, and disappointing ending.” As I noted at the time, you could tell where the over-the-top bits—the MF-bombs, the nudity, the gross-out scenes—were spliced into what was otherwise a flat and forgettable film.
Why He Photographs Snakes
At Photography Life, wildlife photographer Nicholas Hess explains why he photographs snakes, and explains a few of his techniques. He’s very good at it. He’s been at it for a decade. And he’s 19 years old, which means he started, wow, really young. Here’s his Flickr account.
Small and Slow
Woke up to discover that our glossy snake had died overnight. Unlike Doofus, this was not unexpected: she was old (I got her in September 2001, and she wasn’t a baby then) and declining; she hadn’t eaten in months.
She was a runt for her species: glossy snakes are usually larger. But she was pretty gentle, which made her useful in introducing nervous people to snakes. In my experience most people in North America slot harmless snakes into one of two categories: small and fast (garter snakes) or slow and huge (pythons). The glossy snake was small and slow, which helped. A nice little snake.
(She was also massively chonky: glossy snakes are desert creatures who normally feed on lizards; an all-mouse diet in captivity led to some serious fatty deposits.)
‘The Snake Is as Much Symbol as Animal’
“The snake is as much symbol as animal, and this oversaturation of meaning prevents us from seeing the snake clearly. In reality, they are gentle, healthful to the environment, ‘more scared of you than you are of it,’ a sort of tragic hero of the ecosystem that is, when gazed upon without malice, beautiful. I might argue that the contemplation of a snake qua snake […] delivers us past, for a moment, our paralyzed understanding of things and into a configuration of mind from which we might briefly remember how much of what we know is sculpted air and rumor, and how much direct experience of an animal, of any thing, might open our eyes to new possibilities of interpretation or, better yet, to the possibility of resisting interpretation altogether. Perhaps we might let the weight of meaning slip away, revealing only coiled matter. Long and lithe, complexly imbricated, strange: Here is contact. Let it grip you. With your fingers, touch its scales.” —Paul McAdory, “How My Pet Snake Taught Me to See,” The New York Times Magazine.