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).
Category: Reptiles & Amphibians Page 1 of 4
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.)