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

Category: Reptiles & Amphibians Page 1 of 3

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.

Thirsty Snakes

Snakes need to drink—though that fact does come as a surprise to some people. (And it can be neat to watch, in the sense that a snake doing an ordinary thing that every other terrestrial vertebrate does is somehow a revelation.) But it does mean that they can get dangerously dehydrated when they can’t. They’ll even accept water from people if it’s hot and dry enough, as a couple of incidents recently reported on social media will demonstrate.

During Mark Lotterhand’s visits to the Narcisse Snake Dens last month, Manitoba was in the middle of a spring drought. When they set out water from their bottles, the Red-sided Garter Snakes came running, drinking from makeshift water holes, lids filled with water, or even directly from the bottle.

See Mark’s photo album on Flickr.

Getting garter snakes’ minds off mating in the middle of mating season takes some doing, let me tell you, but snakes coming out of hibernation are pretty thirsty to start with: they might not have had anything to drink in months. Add to that dry conditions and they must have been desperate for the water.

Meanwhile, on a hot June day in Illinois, two field research assistants, in the course of their fieldwork, found a Western Hognose Snake; once the snake was measured, they thought that the snake might be dehydrated, so they offered her water. The snake, who had previously exhibited the usual hognose snake defensive repertoire, thought this was a grand idea.

That tweet went viral, so one of the assistants, Taylor West, gives the background to the story in this guest post on the Living Alongside Wildlife blog.

Eastern Hognose Snake (Photo by Douglas Mills)

A Herpetological Roundup

  1. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the Louisiana Pine Snake (Pituophis ruthveni), found only in Louisiana and Texas, as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The snake, one of the rarest snakes in the U.S., had been classified as endangered on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species in 2007.
  2. CBC News looks at how researchers are tracking the Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) in Ontario, where it’s a threatened species. (It’s not, however, rare elsewhere: it’s classed as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List.)
  3. On that note, how many times are conservation efforts focused on a nationally rare population of something widespread and abundant elsewhere (such as, for example, Eastern Hognose Snakes in Ontario) or a rare subspecies or population of a very common species (San Francisco Garter Snakes)? The Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence program focuses “specifically on threatened species that represent a significant amount of unique evolutionary history.” The New York Times looks at the reptiles on the program’s list. [PLOS One]
  4. Still with the New York Timesa long article by Rachel Newer looks at a loophole in the exotic animal (especially reptile) trade: traffickers are laundering wild-caught animals through local farms so as to export them with paperwork certifying them as captive-bred—at which point authorities can’t do anything about it. Worth the read: a balanced look that explores some uncomfortable issues.
  5. Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) have a reputation for being belligerent snakes. Field trials suggest that baseline stress levels are a better predictor of whether a cottonmouth will strike than the stress of encountering an individual human being. Which is not to say that humans aren’t stressing cottonmouths out; it’s just happening at the habitat level, not on an individual basis. [General and Comparitive Endocrinology]
  6. Researchers at Carleton University studying the mating habits of Northern Map Turtles (Graptemys geographica) wondered whether males preferred larger females (female map turtles get much larger than males). So they 3D-printed up some female turtle sex dolls, set up a video camera, and watched what happened. [Animal Behaviour]

  1. Ranavirus has spread to Ontario turtles, which is not good. (See also CBC News.) To minimize the spread of Ranavirus and other herpetofaunal pathogens, here is the decontamination protocol for those working with reptiles and amphibians in the field.
  2. All turtle species in Ontario are now at risk, says Ontario Nature, though that statement takes some unpacking: COSEWIC listed the Ontario and Quebec populations of the Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata), as well as the Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia populations of the Eastern Painted Turtle (C. p. picta) as Special Concern; but the Prairie and Ontario populations of the Western Painted Turtle (C. p. bellii) are still listed as Not at Risk. (The Western Paint is still in trouble in British Columbia, though.)
  3. Whatever the conservation status, turtles face long odds and need all the help we can give them. This video from the Nature Conservancy of Canada, on what to do when you see a turtle on the road.

  1. The chytrid fungus implicated in the decline of amphibian populations worldwide has had its origins identified: the Korean peninsula some time in the early 20th century. The Korean War may have been a vector. [Science]
  2. Finally, and because this roundup needs some levity, the Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum). It’s an ambystomatid salamander like the spotted and tiger salamanders, but this deeply weird (and critically endangered) denizen of Mexican lakes remains in its neotenic state throughout its life, only changing into its adult form if it’s induced by administering iodine or the thryoxine hormone. In 2015, the Rathergood comedy team came up with a song about the Axolotl, which they cleverly called “The Axolotl.”

Questions I’ve answered on Reddit recently:

Featured image: Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), Missouri, May 11, 2017. Photo by Douglas Mills. Creative Commons licence.

A Turtle in Shawville

I didn’t think we’d find turtles in Shawville proper, but Jennifer encountered one, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) trying to cross the street, while she was walking to work.

No idea why the turtle was going where it was going— trust me, the nesting opportunities were poor in that general direction—but once she spotted Jennifer, she did a 180 and hightailed it back to the pond from whence she came, peeing all the way. Only she was distracted by some nearby parked cars that looked like a good place to hide, so Jennifer intervened at that point, aiming the turtle back at the pond. At which point the turtle took the hint, and belly-slid the last part of the way there.

The problem with helping turtles on the road is that it’s momentary. Sooner or later the turtle will venture forth again and run the same gauntlet—especially if it’s surrounded by a fairly built up environment like this one is. It’s a crap shoot whether the turtle will make it across, be helped along, get run over deliberately or accidentally, or be taken home, illegally, to be a child’s pet.

Momentary isn’t the same as futile, though.

Springtime for Garter Snakes

It’s not spring until the garter snakes come out of hibernation. And after a winter that seemed longer and more brutal than usual, we finally got spring last week.

Last Tuesday, some of Jennifer’s students pointed her to a site near the school where Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) were emerging from hibernation. And when I say pointed her to, I mean told her about it by handing her a bunch of wriggling snakes, because the kids know her. The kids released the snakes where they found them, but she told me about it and we made a note to check the site out after classes were done.

The location the kids told her about was at the edge of some seriously snakey habitat: lots of ground cover, and next to a wetland that was already echoing with the calls of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) and Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer). Which is to say, snake food. A good spot, in other words. But in our initial search we only found one snake, which musked all over Jennifer. It took us a while to find the entrance to the hibernaculum, the precise location of which I will not reveal here to ensure the snakes’ safety and privacy, but once we did we found the area fairly crawling with snakes. I had brought my Nikon D7100 with me and took some pictures.

A Herpetological Roundup

Featured image: Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylus johnsoni), Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo, May 2013.

  1. How do you tell the difference between an alligator and a crocodile? Usually the answer has something to do with snouts and teeth. Add another difference: alligators and caimans have shorter foreleg (humerus) and hind leg (femur) bones than crocodiles. Crocodiles can gallop—alligators not so much. [Royal Society Open Science]
  2. Evidence of parental care in snakes does exist, but it’s rare and tantalizing. Here’s another data point. Python mothers are already known to incubate their egg clutches: while cold-blooded, they can raise the temperature of their clutch through muscle movement. A new study finds that Southern African Rock Pythons (Python natalensis) also stay with their young for the first two weeks after their eggs hatch. (Much like rattlesnakes have been observed doing.) [Journal of Zoology]
  3. Audubon magazine looks at efforts to reintroduce the Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi) into its former range, and asks a very Audubon question: what is the impact of this on songbirds? (Indigo snakes are snake predators: feeding on nest raiders like rat snakes can reduce predation on songbirds.)
  4. No surprise: “The European Union is a major destination for illegally smuggled live snakes, lizards and tortoises from southern Africa, posing a serious threat to their conservation.” From what I heard when I was more active in the trade, Europeans have a reputation for smuggling everything from everywhere: they have all the species, just don’t ask too many questions about how they got them.
  5. The Turtle Conservation Coalition has released a report highlighting the most endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles. A lot of the “25+” most endangered species are in southeast Asia, as you might expect, but not all of them are. The 68-page report, titled Turtles in Troublecan be downloaded as a PDF here.

Questions I’ve answered on Quora in the past month:

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