Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Category: Reptiles & Amphibians Page 1 of 3

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.

Snake by Erica Wright

Snake (cover)

There are something like ninety books about reptiles and amphibians on my shelves, which I’ve accumulated over the past two decades. Almost all of them put the author’s expertise on the subject front and centre: these are books by hobbyists who have raised generations of reptiles in captivity, field naturalists with decades of experience finding them in the wild, or herpetologists with deep CVs and institutional authority. Credentials, in this field, matter. What, then, to make of Erica Wright’s Snake, out today from Bloomsbury, a slim volume from someone with no experience with them whatsoever?

Wright writes crime novels and poetry, edits a literary journal and teaches writing: not the profile of someone who writes a book of short essays on snakes. But she has gone and done that very thing. Snake, part of the Object Lessons series of short books “about the hidden lives of ordinary things,” is possibly the most different of all the books about snakes I have ever read, simply because she does not fit that profile. Snake is by someone who was wary if not afraid of them as a child, but came to them as an adult.

Secrets of Snakes

Secrets of Snakes (cover)

This is a rule: anyone with any kind of web presence regarding snakes will be contacted by dozens of strangers asking for advice. How to identify snakes (and this snake in particular), how to keep snakes away from their property, how to take care of a pet snake. I launched my website about garter snakes in 2004, and of course I talk about snakes here, and for the last decade and a half or so I’ve been receiving, on average, one to three emails a week from people with questions like these.

Sometimes answering these questions is relatively simple (“yes, that sure does look like a garter snake”). On other occasions I find myself well above my pay grade. The problem is that I’m an amateur enthusiast. One who’s been messing around with snakes for forty years, to be sure, but an amateur all the same. I have no credentials (I’m a historian, not a biologist). And yet, just because I have a website about snakes, I’m repeatedly called upon to offer advice on how to snake-proof a basement, or build a hibernaculum, or identify snakes I’ve never encountered from parts of North America I’ve never been to. I try to be helpful as a general rule, but I’m getting increasingly nervous about getting things wrong.1

American Snakes

While reading Sean P. Graham’s American Snakes (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), I suddenly realized that most of the snake books in my library are now at least a generation old. That’s a function of my buying most of them in a burst of enthusiasm around 20 years ago. It was easy for me to assume that I’d read everything there was to read at the subject, at least at the level at which I was capable of reading (any further, and I’d have to take a degree in the subject). But herpetology has not stood still in the ensuing decades: there have been new studies, and new discoveries—and new people doing it. Graham, an assistant professor at Sul Ross State University in Texas, is very much a member of a new generation of herpetologists, and American Snakes very much reflects that fact.

Garter Snakes Prefer the Company of Their Friends

Eastern Garter Snakes, Shawville QC, April 2018.A recent study exploring social behaviour in Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) found that snakes “actively seek social interaction, prefer to remain with larger aggregates, and associate nonrandomly with specific individuals or groups.” In other words, they had preferences as to who they hung out with. “The snakes’ social networks were perturbed twice a day by ‘shuffling’ their locations. Despite these disturbances, the snakes eventually re-formed their preferred social environment.” This isn’t the first time snakes’ social preferences have been documented. And it’s no surprise to me that garter snakes also exhibit this sort of behaviour: I’ve observed that captive garter snakes do much better when kept in groups, and they aggregate all the time in the wild. [Science]

An Argument Against Using mtDNA to Define Species

Reptile taxonomy has been upended in recent decades by studies that use mitochondrial DNA—and only mtDNA—to reorganize and subdivide existing species into new groups. In a point-of-view piece for Herpetological Review exploring the usefulness and validity of subspecies as a concept, David Hillis argues against this practice, pointing to a mismatch between mtDNA and intergradation zones, and new studies looking at nuclear gene flow that disagree with mtDNA findings, thanks to which taxonomic changes based on mtDNA are beginning to be reversed. [Andrew DuBois]

Pretzel, 20 Years On

Today is an anniversary of sorts. May 30, 1999 was the date I got back into snake keeping, when I brought home, from a pet store, a young female corn snake I named Pretzel. She wasn’t a particularly large snake, though she wasn’t a newborn, and she wasn’t particularly flashy: just a plain, ordinary corn snake with no fancy colour or pattern mutations.

Twenty years later, Pretzel is still with us, hardly changed from the day I brought her home. The Dorian Gray of colubrid snakes. I was going to say that she’s still going strong, but that’s up in the air at the moment. Right now she’s sequestered in a cage with a nesting box because she seems to be with (absolutely infertile) eggs; last week she had a few seizures that may or may not be related. We’re keeping an eye.

Garter Snakes: Banned in British Columbia

One odd quirk of Canadian reptile law that I’ve known about for a while is that garter snakes can’t be kept as pets anywhere in British Columbia. Not just the three species found in that province—any garter snake. This question just came up on the Facebook Garter Snakes group, which I manage. I did some digging and found the exact laws and regulations that prohibit this. I’m sharing what I turned up here for future reference.

British Columbia’s Wildlife Act regulates wildlife, and wildlife is a term that has a specific definition under the Act: something has to be defined as wildlife (as opposed to controlled alien species, another defined term in the Act) in order for the Act’s provisions on wildlife to apply to it. The Act defines wildlife as “raptors, threatened species, endangered species, game and other species of vertebrates prescribed by regulation.” For that prescribed by regulation part, see schedule A of B.C.’s Designated Exemption Regulation,1 which defines a number of species, not all of which live in B.C., as wildlife. This includes, among other things, all species of garter snake. (Garter snakes aren’t being singled out: the list also includes all true frogs, treefrogs, toads, mole salamanders, lungless salamanders, pond turtles, snapping turtles and softshell turtles. More on that in a moment.)

Steve Irwin Schadenfreude

On Friday Google posted a Doodle in honour of what would have been Steve Irwin’s 57th birthday. PETA, the Westboro Baptist Church of animal rights, decided to use this opportunity to take a swipe at Irwin (who died in 2006) on Twitter. The usual backlash and fulminations ensued.

Irwin’s legacy is complicated. He did a lot of real conservation work behind the scenes, but his brash, loud animal wrangling made conservationists uncomfortable: he operated at an uneasy intersection of conservation, education and showmanship, and lots of people felt he emphasized the last one too much.

Immediately after he died in September 2006, those people took shots at him and his work, suggesting that getting killed was a kind of karmic revenge. In response, I wrote a blog post that I’m reprinting below. Unless you were following me 12½ years ago, you probably haven’t seen it. Given the recent flareup, I think it might be worth another airing.


The worldwide reaction to Steve Irwin’s death has been swift, strong and usually sympathetic, but it’s inevitable that some people are insufficiently socialized that they cannot help but take a shot at the recently departed and the circumstances of his death.

Jason Calacanis says that the Discovery Channel killed him because of its focus on televising risky encounters with wildlife; Germaine Greer says that the stingray attack was the animal world extracting its revenge. The sentiment behind these posts occurs elsewhere, and can be distilled into one of two arguments: Steve Irwin was an irresponsible thrill seeker; Steve Irwin was a cruel tormentor of animals. Either way, it’s poetic justice—in other words, he got what was coming to him—and the commentariat, whether in the op-ed pages or on the blogosphere, thrives on poetic justice the way it revels in Schadenfreude.

My response to those espousing these arguments is simple: You have no idea what you’re talking about.

A Herpetological Roundup

  1. A new species of salamander, the Reticulated Siren (Siren reticulata), has been described: CNN, Earther, National Geographic. Found in the Florida Panhandle and Alabama, the three-foot aquatic salamander had a near-mythic status (it was known as the leopard eel) before a specimen was caught and identified. [PLOS ONE]
  2. A new genus and species of snake was found in the stomach of a Central American Coral Snake (Micrurus nigrocinctus). The coral snake was collected in 1976; a ten-inch snake was found in its stomach that did not match any known species, so into the museum collection it went. As it often does, it took until this year for said snake, now named Cenapsis aenigma (“mysterious dinner snake”), to be formally described. [Journal of Herpetology]
  3. But maybe those discoveries aren’t such good news for the species being discovered. An excerpt from Rachel Love Nuwer’s Poached, published this week at Wired, looks at the plight of the Earless Monitor (Lanthanotus borneensis). When a population of this secretive lizard was found in 2008, the article reporting the find was careful to omit exact the exact coordinates. That didn’t stop reptile collectors: as with many other newly discovered species and populations, the monitor soon turned up in collections and on online ads.
  4. The Wildlife Justice Foundation has issued a report on Operation Dragon, its two-year investigation into turtle and tortoise smuggling in southeast Asia, and the widespread corruption that enables it. National Geographic has coverage.
  5. Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Island Tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdonii), died in 2012, but his genome still has much to teach us: a comparative analysis of his genome with Aldabra Giant Tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) explores the genetic factors in tortoises’ longevity, gigantism and immune response. [Nature Ecology & Evolution]
  6. Last August, a Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) was spotted off the British Columbia coast: a rare thing, apparently.
  7. A taxonomic update regarding small burrowing snakes found in Mexico and the southwestern United States: a study earlier this year placed sand snakes (Chilomeniscus) and shovelnose snakes (Chionactis) under the same genus as ground snakes (Sonora). CNAH’s list has already been updated.
  8. The Center for Biological Diversity is suing the U.S. government for failing to protect the Northern Mexican Garter Snake (Thamnophis eques megalops) and the Narrow-headed Garter Snake (Thamnophis rufipunctatus). In 2005 the Center sued to force the government to grant endangered species status to the Mexican garter; both species were granted threatened status in 2014.
Spring Peeper

A Herpetological Roundup

  1. With fewer than 100 individuals believed to exist in the wild, the Lake Pátzcuaro Salamander (Ambystoma dumerilii) or achoque, found only in and around Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán, Mexico, is critically endangered. They’re getting help from an unusual corner: Dominican nuns at a nearby convent, who for the past 150 years have been raising the salamanders in captivity. (They use them to make a “mysterious” medicine: a cough syrup called jarabe.) See this long and fascinating read in the New York Times, which is accompanied by first-rate photography.
  2. A biologist is warning that Okanagan populations of the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus) are 100 years from extinction. The snake is at the northern limits of its range, and it’s down to between 1,500 and 2,500 individuals. It’s listed as a threatened species. There are populations in more trouble, and sooner (see above), but this is worth keeping an eye on.
  3. Male rattlesnakes engage in ritual combat during mating season. Here’s video of a pair of male Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) getting fighty with each other. Here’s another video from California, species unidentified.
  4. A beautiful essay by Laura Marjorie Miller on the controversial plan to reintroduce the Timber Rattlesnake to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts, which I’ve mentioned in previous roundups.
  5. Where do snake-handling cults get their snakes? As The State discovered, South Carolina. Thanks to the lack of restrictions on the sale of venomous snakes, snake-handling preachers from other states regularly buy their snakes at reptile shows.
  6. CityLab takes a look at Isha Serpent, a volunteer snake rescue group in Madhurai, India; the snakes being rescued include spectacled cobras, kraits, and Russell’s and saw-scaled vipers. The group’s been active since 2009 and has relocated more than 2,000 snakes—with, they claim, no envenomations.
  7. A new study suggests that cats have a significant impact on reptile populations: in a field experiment, cats were removed from six 64-hectare plots; over a two-year period, reptile populations rebounded significantly in those areas. [Biological Conservation]
  8. A fossil snake embryo or neonate from the late Cretaceous has been found preserved in amber in Myanmar. [Science Advances]
  9. One of the most common questions people like me get from strangers: how do I snake-proof my yard? Here’s a comprehensive answer: I think I’ll point people to it from now on.
  10. Last month the Herpetologists’ League gave Richard Vogt the Distinguished Herpetologist award. Vogt, who made the significant discovery that incubation temperature can determine a turtle’s sex, proceeded to pepper his plenary lecture with photos, some of which were “censored” with coloured boxes, of his scantily clad students. (Research on aquatic reptiles often involves swimwear, but Vogt was apparently, and regularly, gratuitous.) Stories soon followed about Vogt, who appears to be someone female herpetologists have to warn one another about. News coverage in the #metoo era—local from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, national from the New York Times—was inevitable. Vogt’s award was rescinded, the League’s president has resigned, there was much huffing and puffing from one former league president on Vogt’s behalf (and presumably others), and the League’s new president is taking a tough line on harassment and misconduct. A code of conduct is in the works.

Question I’ve answered on Quora recently:

Featured image: Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) found on our property on August 10, 2018.

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