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

Category: Reptiles & Amphibians

Extrovert, 1999-2016

Extrovert being weighed in 2015.

Extrovert, our female Wandering Garter Snake, finally died overnight. She’d been declining for months and we’d been expecting this for quite some time. She last ate on March 23rd, which was not immediately a cause for concern (she’d gone off her food before, in 2011 and 2014, but her appetite came roaring back in each case). But as the skipped meals piled up it became increasingly clear that this was probably it. We kept offering her food, just in case, but in the end it was the end.

Extrovert came into my hands on May 12, 2000. She was a well-started juvenile by that point, which meant that she’d been born the year before. That made her 17 years old when she died. Now, 17 years is a magnificent age for a garter snake. Not unheard of, but certainly not typical. She’s outlasted any other garter snake we’ve had, and a good number of the other snakes, too. Only four have been in our care longer than her.

Facebook, Kingsnake.com and Reptile Hobbyists

The liberal political website Daily Kos has a piece on how Facebook has been wreaking havoc on independent website owners by drawing away both users and advertising dollars. They used as their example Jeff Barringer’s Kingsnake.com, which a decade and a half ago was the online reptile community website. That was a blast from the past: back then I spent an awful lot of time reading and commenting there, but I don’t think I’ve visited it at all in more than a decade.

It’s safe to say that most reptile hobbyists have migrated to Facebook. The mailing lists I subscribed to have been moribund for years, whereas I manage an active Facebook group with 2,500 members. What precipitated the move? I have a few guesses. For users, discoverability—everyone’s already on Facebook. And a Facebook group is turn-key: easy to set up, easy to use, already part of the ecosystem. You don’t need to buy web hosting or set up forum software. Also, reptile hobbyists are a fractious lot. A bunch of Canadian reptile hobbyists up and left Kingsnake.com’s Canadian site in a huff and started another site; then a bunch of that site’s users left it in a huff and started yet another site (which is still in operation, kind of). This diluted the authority of any one community website; no single site was compelling enough to have the stickiness necessary to go up against Facebook.

The end result is bad for independent site owners, who rely—or rather relied—on ad revenues that have long since dried up, and bad for the web ecosystem in general. It’s great for Facebook, of course, but it’s not necessarily bad for individual users. Let me be blunt: Kingsnake.com today looks a lot like it did in the late 1990s. Most independent reptile communities were not necessarily well-run in a technical or community sense. For users, Facebook can be an improvement—especially if Facebook is too busy delivering targeted advertising based on your personal data to care whether or not you should have to pay to post a classified ad.

The Seven Species of Milk Snake

At one point the Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) comprised two dozen subspecies ranging from Quebec to Ecuador, from drab, saddled snakes to brilliant tricolours, and from bootlace-sized minatures to six-foot behemoths. The difference between a local Eastern Milk Snake and a tangerine-morph Honduran Milk Snake from the pet store is pretty extreme. It had been suggested, I can’t remember where, that the Milk Snake was an example of a ring species, where neighbouring populations interbreed but the end points (i.e., Quebec and Ecuador) are too distantly related.

But the simpler answer is that these snakes are not all one species, and a recent study—an early draft of which I tweeted about in December 2013—suggests that they are, in fact, seven species. The authors divide them as follows:

Snakes of the Southeast

There are a lot of regional field guides to reptiles and amphibians out there: I own at least two dozen of them myself, and I’ve reviewed several of them for herpetological newsletters. They perform yeoman service helping people identify the wildlife around them, which in areas with venomous snakes can be absolutely critical. But not every field guide is the same. Some really are field guides, to be used in the field to identify specimens: slim volumes that provide little more than range maps and identification keys. Others throw portability out the window in favour of comprehensiveness, providing hundreds of pages of scholarly detail between hard covers, but at a cost: they’re nearly inaccessible to the general reader.

snakes-southeastOne of my favourite field guides, Snakes of the Southeast, stakes out a middle ground. Though it’s written by two college professors, Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, who co-authored a scholarly monograph on North American water snakes, it’s definitely aimed at a general readership — one that isn’t necessarily mucking about in swamps, but is nonetheless interested in the wildlife living in their region.1 More comprehensive than a slim pocket guide, but much more accessible than a scholarly reference, Snakes of the Southeast has a clear idea of what questions need answering and who’s asking them.

The Snake Lobby

Two years ago, in my Ottawa Citizen piece about the New Brunswick python incident (still ongoing; here’s the latest), I argued that snake keepers should be very careful not to imitate gun rights activists. “More than a decade ago,” I wrote then, “I saw people on reptile discussion websites compare exotic pet bylaws, which they found overly restrictive, to gun control legislation, which they also opposed. And I thought to myself: no, don’t make that argument. You won’t win that argument. Comparing snakes to guns will get reptiles banned in every large city in Canada.”

But as Slate‘s David Fleshler writes, reptile keepers have been doing that very thing—adopting the tactics of the gun lobby—in the United States, and getting results.

The reptile analogue of the NRA is USARK, the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (the Canadian equivalent is CanHerp), which amazingly has managed to portray itself as the defender of a multimilion-dollar industry and get a receptive hearing from politicians at the congressional and state levels—at least, it seems, right-wing politicians with a hate-on for government regulations, particularly of the environmental sort.

As a snake keeper on the centre-left of the political spectrum, I honestly don’t know what to make of this. I suspect the environmental threat posed by introduced giant constrictors is overstated but nonetheless real. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for venomous snake keeping, but enthusiastically support (and practise) the keeping of harmless, captive-bred snakes, and I get annoyed when harmless and dangerous snakes are conflated—by both sides.

I also believe that the dichotomy between domestic and exotic animals is largely a false one, particularly when you’re applying rules appropriate for smart animals with complex social lives to terrarium animals of very little brain. For a lot of people, I think, the ick factor gets in the way of properly evaluating the safety, ethical and environmental aspects of snake keeping.

But I’m not at all keen on political arguments and tactics that have very little to do with the animals themselves—arguments and tactics that, I fear, will do more harm than good to snake keeping in the long run.

Can Snakes Hear? (Hint: Yes)

Snakes are inscrutable and mysterious. That’s probably why so many people ask so many basic questions about their biology. (One I’ve run into a few times: do snakes have bones? The answer is yes, lots of them, but the question belies a confusion about what a snake is: they think it’s some variant of worm.)

Sometimes, though, the answer is complex, or incomplete because we don’t know yet. For example, last month, Andrew Durso looked at the science behind the question of whether snakes sleep, a question whose answer is made more complicated by snakes’ lack of eyelids. As it turns out, there hasn’t been a lot of work done on the subject (one EEG study with an African rock python). “So here’s what we know: snakes probably do sleep, perhaps most of the time, but we don’t really know when, for how long, how deeply, or whether or not they have paradoxical sleep, including dreaming.”

Now Andrew has posted another good question: can snakes hear? Now, those of us who know anything about snakes know that snakes don’t have external ears. It’s widely understood that snakes can feel ground vibrations, but airborne sounds? Much to my surprise, they can. This time there’s a bit more research. Snakes, it turns out, aren’t really deaf.

Studies have shown that snakes can hear sounds in the 80-600 Hz range optimally, with some species hearing sounds up to 1000 Hz (for comparison, the range of human hearing is from 20-20,000 Hz). This means that a snake could hear middle C on a piano, as well as about one octave above and two below, but neither the lowest key (which is 27.5 Hz) nor the highest (which is 4186 Hz). The average human voice is around 250 Hz, which means that snakes can hear us talking as well. Of course, there is likely a lot of variation among snake species, and the hearing of most species has not been examined, so these are generalizations.

Of course they don’t hear exactly the same way we do, because their inner and middle ears are structured differently. But now I’m wondering how much the snakes in our living room can hear the home theatre system. I’ve always assumed that they could feel the subwoofer, but it doesn’t look like they could hear it.

The Great Snake Weigh-in of 2015

This month Jennifer and I started doing something we’ve been meaning to do since the fall of 2013: weigh all the snakes in our menagerie. It’s something neither of us has ever done before; we’d had vague ideas of the approximate weights of our various critters, but that’s about it.

Our method was pretty straightforward: tare the scale, stick the snake on it, and take its picture. Those of you who follow me on social media will have seen the photos already; I’ve assembled them into a photo album here.

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