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).
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.
- 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]
- 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]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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]
- Last August, a Leatherback Sea Turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) was spotted off the British Columbia coast: a rare thing, apparently.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
It’s a killer 95 degrees on the sand prairie today, so I was ecstatic when this western #hognose snake accepted several big gulps of water from my bottle!#SharingIsCaring #SciComm #Herpetology #HERper pic.twitter.com/rRtH03VtjL
— Taylor West (@WildWildTWest) June 19, 2018
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.
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.
- Neil Balchan is upset, and so am I. The garter snake researcher visited a wintering den where he was doing field research only to discover that dozens of harmless red-sided garter snakes had been beaten and butchered at the site. CBC News has more.
- Here’s TVO on the fragile state of the eastern hognose snake in Ontario.
- And here’s the Great Lakes Echo on scientists’ efforts to track the elusive—and, in Ontario, endangered—rat snake.
- The Tennessee Aquarium has created the first map of North America’s biogeographical turtle communities.
- Burmese pythons might be an invasive scourge in Florida’s Everglades, but they’re not doing well in their natural range. The Guardian looks at conservation efforts on the python’s behalf in Bangladesh.
- An interesting read in Smithsonian magazine about taxonomic vandalism—the act of exploiting international rules to name new species without the science to back it up, usually for self-aggrandizing reasons. It’s endemic in herpetology; Raymond Hoser’s name turns up here, and not for the first time.
- Tiger keelback snakes are both venomous (it’s a rear-fanged colubrid)
and poisonous, thanks to the toads they feed on. The snakes store the toad toxins in their nuchal glands. But do they know they’re packing toad toxins? According to a new study, yes: the snakes’ defensive behaviour changes depending on the toxicity of their diet. [Journal of Comparative Psychology]
- Commercial reptile collection has been banned in Nevada, where it’s been more or less unregulated for decades. Nature’s Cool Green Science blog has the story behind the ban.
- Sean Graham has some advice for field herpers: instead of spending money and effort on finding rare species for your life list, they should spend that on field work that might actually do some good. “Imagine if instead of trying to find their lifer Pigmy Rattlesnake in Apalachicola National Forest, they instead went looking for them in central Alabama where records are few and patchy? If instead of herping for fun, everyone made their herping count?”1
- Using the Internet to identify snakes is definitely a thing; I’ve gotten my share of requests. Sierra, the Sierra Club’s magazine, looks at how the Snake Identification Facebook group does the job. Turns out the challenges the group faces are as much about social dynamics—dealing with frivolous requests, not attacking people for killing snakes—as they are scientific.
- If you can’t feed a snake mice, does that mean you can’t keep snakes at all? I answer this question on Quora.
- The Christian Science Monitor reports on how the residents of the town of Glastonbury, Connecticut learned to live with—and help protect—the endangered Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).
- When cicadas emerge, they’re a plentiful food source for many species—including, as the Houston Chronicle’s Shannon Tompkins learned, Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), which aggregate in large numbers and stuff themselves silly.
- Pollution is turning sea snakes black. The Turtle-headed Sea Snake (Emydocephalus annulatus) normally has a banded pattern (see above), but individuals found in polluted waters around New Caledonia are increasingly melanistic. It’s a phenomenon called “industrial melanism”: melanin tends to bind to metal ions of trace elements like arsenic and zinc; melanism and an increased shed cycle allows these snakes to rid themselves of toxic metals. [Current Biology]
- Speaking of sea snakes, say hello to the Yellow Sea Snake (Hydrophis platurus xanthos), a newly discovered subspecies of the Yellow-bellied Sea Snake that is found in the warm, turbulent, anoxic waters of Golfo Dulce, off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica [Zoo Keys]
- When it comes to invasive reptiles in Florida, Burmese Pythons get all the press, but they’re not the only ones; CNAH lists 65 alien reptiles and amphibian species introduced to North America, most in Florida. Three of those species are chameleons. As invasive species go, they’re pretty innocuous, but still. National Geographic has a look at Florida’s chameleon hunters, who adopt out the chameleons they catch.
- Meanwhile, across the Straits of Florida, the Washington Post looks at an unlikely refuge for rare snakes like the Cuban Boa (Chilabothrus/Epicrates angulifer): Guantanamo Bay.
- A Manitoba couple caught a Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix) in the act of gobbling down an Eastern Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum). Small problem: the salamander’s endangered. That snake is in serious legal trouble.
- And what is almost certainly the weirdest reptile story ever to come to my attention: a story about turtle boners. No wait, it’s better than you think! It’s really difficult to figure out a turtle’s sex. So researchers came up with the idea of—oh boy—using a vibrator to stimulate the turtle: male turtles would get an erection. So: turtle boners. In the study, the method had a 100 percent accuracy rate. Because: turtle boners. Science is awesome. That is all. [Acta Herpetologica]
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.