Photo of the Week – May 9, 2013

A red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska

A red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  Click on this or other photos for a larger, sharper image.

I ran across this beautiful garter snake in our Platte River Prairies yesterday.  Interestingly, it was almost exactly a year ago that I photographed a mating ball of red-sided garter snakes just a 1/2 mile from where I found this one.  This one may have been looking for love too, but I interrupted it just long enough to get a few photos.

I know snakes evoke strong emotions from many people – and not necessarily in a positive way.  It’s too bad, because if you can stand to look at them up close, they are really beautiful creatures.  I love to study the patterns of scales, especially on the head.  The scales look as if they might have been put together by a master stone mason.

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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!