Garter snakes

Garter snakes are one of the most adaptable family of animals on the planet. Adaptability is a great trait in nature. This western plains garter snake was using residual heat from a brush pile that had been burned to keep its body temperature up during a cool summer night. Reptiles have to use external heat sources to regulate their body temperature. This was an instinctive, but ingenious way of doing that. Nature always amazes me.

The adaptability of wildlife always amazes me. Much of the time I think that if people could be as smart or intuitive as critters, we would have a lot fewer problems. I recently ran across a great example of how animals can adapt.

I was visiting a friend who had been clearing some brush and downed branches. As is done in many cases, he had made a pile of brush then burned it off. We were carrying some more brush to the burn area and tossing it on the pile. I noticed a flash of orange as I passed by. In a mound of predominantly gray ash and blackened pieces of wood, the orange was easy to see.

What I found was a western plains garter snake. Garter snakes are perhaps the most successful family of snakes in North America. Some variant/subspecies of this snake is found just about everywhere. Even Alaska has garter snakes! You don’t cover that much territory and survive without being able to adapt. As far as snakes go, garter snakes are top contenders in the survival game.

So why would you find a garter snake on top of a pile of ashes? I thought about that too, and knowing that snakes are cold-blooded, I checked the ash pile. Sure enough, the core of the ash pile was still warm. The surface of the pile was warm, but you could easily keep your hand on it.

The night before had been a cool summer evening so the snake simply found a warm spot to curl up for a while. It is so simple, yet so remarkable at the same time. Fire is definitely an enemy of wild creatures. Yet, the snake could overcome that innate fear/caution of fire to utilize a resource it found. Do you remember the old adage your mother probably told you, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade?” This is exactly what the snake instinctively did.

Being a reptile, a snake cannot maintain its own body temperature like a mammal and must depend on its local environment for body warmth. Many snakes do this by basking in the sun during the morning and evening hours. Snakes regulate their body temperature by moving between sun and shade. The snake I found was just extending that period of warmth by using the heat coming from the ashes.

Garter snakes are opportunistic hunters. They will eat almost any animal that they can catch. Grasshoppers, earthworms, frogs, and the occasional small bird or mammals are all part of their diet. They hunt in the early morning and early evening when the temperature is warm without the strong direct heat of the mid-day sun. Their sight is good by snake standards and, if prey comes within striking distance of the snake, it will usually be pursued. They rely on speed and agility to capture prey.

I had always been taught that garter snakes were nonvenomous, but recent discoveries have revealed that they do in fact produce a mild neurotoxic venom. They aren’t able to kill their prey with their venom, nor do they have an effective means to deliver the venom.

Most venomous snakes have fangs in the front part of their mouths. Garter snakes have enlarged teeth that work like fangs far back of their mouth. A garter snake has to chew on something for a while for any of the venom to get into the prey. The venom is generally thought to be harmless to humans, but it probably works like an anesthetic to their normal prey to relax them and make it easier to eat.

Garter snakes are very tolerant of the cold and are one of the last snakes to retreat in the fall. They are also one of the earliest snakes to come out of hibernation in the spring.

And that is your basic herpetology session for the day. Thank You.

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