It’s Spring for Snakes

The temperature topped 80 degrees F today in the Platte River Prairies.  I heard a frog plop into the water as I walked along a wetland edge.  Red-winged blackbirds were defending territories. 

…and apparently red-sided garter snakes were feeling the spring too.

A small mating ball of red-sided garter snakes. Platte River Prairies, Nebraska. Click on the picture for a larger, sharper image - if you dare.

When I first came upon these garter snakes, there were four of them.  As I neared, the writhing mass of snakes separated, and they all started for me like they thought I was going to give them something to eat.  I have no idea what that was about, but it’s a good thing I’m not afraid of snakes!  As I got my camera out of the truck, the snakes scattered, and one went a different direction from the others.  The other three slithered about 10 feet away and then re-formed their mating ball.  I’m assuming the bigger of the three snakes was the female, but it can be hard to tell.

Apparently, even snakes can have a hard time telling males from females in this kind of mating frenzy.  As garter snakes emerge from their winter dens, males come out first and and lie in wait for females.  When a female arrives on the scene it’s mobbed by a group of waiting males and they writhe around together until a pair finally mates.  Just to make things interesting, though, sometimes males can pretend to be females, and can even exude a female pheromone.  It’s not clear why the “she-males” do this, but there are some theories.  Since newly emerging snakes are cold, and thus slow, it may be that she-males are trying to warm up by attracting a “snake blanket”.  Besides the warmth advantage, being in the middle of a big ball of snakes might be good protection from any nearby predator, who is likely to pick off the snakes from the outside of the ball, not the inside.  On the other hand, it seems like a ball of snakes might attract more predators than a single slow-moving cold snake!

It was a great spring day to be outside.  Apparently, the snakes thought so too!


About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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8 Responses to It’s Spring for Snakes

  1. Great photo and information about emerging garter snakes. When I was young I fantasized about somehow gathering every North American garter snake possible for my in-the-basement zoo. In college I did a class project in which I collected over 100 from around a hibernaculum and made a number of measurements of each to determine sex ratios and ages. Fascinating.

    I’ve never seen a red-sided garter snake but still hope to do so before I’m blind or dead.


  2. Tracy Tucker says:

    Hi Chris-
    Terry and I visited the stream this past weekend to take pictures and GPS readings and saw your frogs, as well as quite a few ducks and a pair of Canada geese that seemed quite comfortable. They may be your permanent guests on that little island :) Your river otter was around too.

  3. Dan Fogell says:

    Nice ‘ball o’ snakes’ Chris! Massasaugas were out at Burchard Lake today…it truly WAS a great day to be on the prairie.

  4. phardesty1 says:

    Great photo in info! It’s warming unseasonably here, too. Our little patch of Missouri prairie is seeing the redwinged blackbirds. We are doing some burning, but the weather went screaming past us! With waiting for the wind to lessen and the warm up we can’t believe, we may not get all done that I wanted.

  5. Pingback: Photo of the Week – May 9, 2013 | The Prairie Ecologist


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