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Surprising discovery of nest leaves naturalist feeling a little 'snaky'

Baby snakes come equipped with a tracking program built in, explains outdoors columnist of interesting little creatures
20160421_Garter Snake (3)
The discovery of a baby garter snake was an attention grabber for our columnist. David Hawke/OrilliaMatters

Did you know that most snakes hatch from eggs? Weird it may sound, but other reptiles such as turtles are well known for their egg laying. Many a turtle nest I’ve found over the decades, but not once a snake nest. I feel incomplete as a naturalist.

This whole bizarre thought process began last evening as I wandered our line fence, enjoying the cooler evening breeze. As I lolly-gagged along, swinging my walking stick at errant leaves, a large earthworm was noticed in the grass ahead. That in itself is not too unusual, as this former pasture was once a dew worm hotspot.

What was unusual was that the markings on its body were not the usual damp dark brown, this one was light brown with specks and looked dry. And then it moved, real sudden-like. Now I am used to worms retracting back down their burrow when danger threatens (such as when the red-red robin comes bob-bob-bobbing along) but this one didn’t disappear down a hole, it kept on going… straight, fast and wriggly.

Knowing full well that worms are not known for using strength enhancing steroids, I took a closer look. A-ha! I see eyes, and scales! Not a worm but a snake!

But what a tiny snake! It’s just a baby! Awww!

I know that some readers of this column are not snake lovers… you have made your traumatic emotional reaction clear to me on a couple past occasions. Well, hopefully you have had some success with your snake-a-phobia therapy sessions and this is just a test.

The checkerboard pattern of light and dark blotches on its back screamed “garter snake”. While the definitive yellow and black body stripes common to the adults was missing, the red tongue and yellow-ringed eyes led me to tag it as garter snake.

Happy with my identification skills, I stood up and resumed my walk… for about one pace. There was another one! How cool is that? Two baby garter snakes side-by-each, right in front of me. Makes the whole hike feel rewarding!

And then another! Three! Super way cool! All wriggling in the same direction, like kids on an exploratory hike across the field. This called for some research time once back at my abode.

While many snake species do lay eggs and guard their nest, garter snakes don’t do that. What they do do, is have live young. Yep, little snakes crawling out of a bigger snake. Awesome, eh?

Wait… what? You’re grossed out by that? Where do you think you came from, an Amazon delivery box? Nope, you were a little person that came crawling out of a bigger person, just like a snake. (Did that come out right?)

This method of offspring delivery is called ovoviviparous. (Yes, you can so say that word, just break it down and go one syllable at a time: Oh-vo-vi-vip-or-us.) This just fancy biologist talk for “a reptile that produces live young”.

Rather than creating and defending a nest and eggs like other snakes in the neighbourhood, female garter snakes kept sliding around, getting bigger and bigger until birthing day. That’s when 10 to 40 of the little snaky siblings emerged! (If ever a Mama had the right to say “Whew, not doing that again," it’s a Mama garter snake!)

The little snakelets are born ready to go, no fussing over them from this mother snake. “Mom! Mom! Look at me slither! Did you see me slither? Can we all go slither in the pasture? Mom!”

These baby snakes come equipped with a tracking program built in. By flicking their bright red tongue out and in, each snake is capturing numerous chemicals that are in the air and analyzing them.

The odour particles are caught on the surface of the tongue and the tongue is then placed in two slots on the inside of the snake’s mouth. … analyzing… and a message is relayed to the brain.

In this case, the youngsters get the message that Mom went this way! And away they all go, pell-mell across the meadow, with informal slither races breaking out here and there. Until a tall two-legged beastie appears and creates a break in the fun.

Actually, they have many other predators to fear much more than me. These little snakes are high on the menu for crows, gulls, raccoons, foxes, shrikes (a rare songbird that eats snakes), turkeys and most anything else that fancies itself a predator.

On a side note, ever since wild turkeys settled onto our farm the snake and salamander populations have crashed, due to the efficient foraging done by these big birds. So it was especially nice to see three newborns on this hike.

For all you snake-a-phobia folks who have maintained your calm all through these harrowing paragraphs… good for you! See? Not so bad, eh? If you are up to it, maybe I can later write a story about spiders in your closet? No? Too soon?