snakes

And in Snake Clitoris News …

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.

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?

Male eastern garter snake in Shawville, Quebec, April 2018.

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).

Underweight and Long-lived

Ghost getting weighed in 2015

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.

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.

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.

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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

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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.

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