Friday, June 6, 2008

Love your local serpent.

Red-sided Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis.
On a trail in the bog, I came across a small Red-sided Garter Snake, less than a year old, that had been stomped to death. It’s unseasonably cold here, and the snake probably came out searching for some sun, but couldn’t find enough and was too sluggish to evade the rotten person/people who came across it.

There’s no excuse for that, ever, and here, especially, where our only snakes are harmless garter snakes, whose usual reaction upon sensing human presence is to slip away as quickly as possible. We have three species, the Red-sided Garter Snake,Thamnophis sirtalis, the Northwestern Garter Snake, T. ordinoides, and the Terrestrial or Western Garter Snake, T. elegans. Full lengths rarely surpass three feet; the Northwestern rarely surpasses two feet. We are snake-poor compared to other regions of Canada, which can be home to ten or more species.

A century ago there was another, larger species, also harmless – the Pacific Gopher Snake, which grew to about five feet and inhabited the grasslands of the Fraser River Delta. Like many non-venomous colubrid snakes, it defended itself by coiling its body and vibrating its tail in the dry grass, which created a noise similar to the buzz of a rattlesnake. Perhaps the intent was to ward away range animals such as bison and elk that might step on it. It turned out not to be the best reaction to two-legged interlopers with rakes and shovels. Given the general level of animus toward snakes, about the worst ploy a harmless species could adopt was to was evoke the thought of dangerous one. It didn’t matter that there were never rattlesnakes here. If you sound like one, you might as well be one. Later, as agriculture progressed, tail buzzing was of no use at all against mechanized tilling and harvesting devices.

It is sometimes asserted that the fear of snakes is a learned trait, which children must be taught. It may not be as simple as that, but generally snake-phobia is more openly displayed by adults than children. A naturalist handling a tame snake, showing it to a group, is likely to be mobbed by kids as parents cringe in the background.

The extirpated Pacific Gopher Snake was a rodent eater and would have been a help to farmers. The Northwestern Garter Snake favours slugs, thus is useful to the growing of garden crops and flowers. The common Red-sided Garter and Terrestrial Garter often live close to water, where they hunt frogs, including the introduced bullfrog that is becoming a serious environmental problem.

So don’t stomp them.

Northwestern Garter Snake, Thamnophis ordinoides, from the bog. The reddish colour is common in the bog where the soil is orange-brown peat.


swamp4me said...

It is just sad that so many people are needlessly afraid of snakes. Such fascinating animals...and they pose so little threat, even here where we have many more species, some of them venomous.
Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

Hugh said...

Thanks. I love the rat snake over on your blog today. I've always had a thing for rat snakes; they're handsome and smart.

Nancy J. Bond said...

While I have an [unfounded] phobia of snakes, I would certainly go out of my way to avoid it rather than stomp it to death. My daughter, a wildlife biologist, doesn't mind handling them at all, but she hasn't quite been able to convince me of their "loveliness". :) I realize they are beneficial in the garden; perhaps some day we'll make friends.

themanicgardener said...

I was lucky to go to a school where the science teacher (Densie) would take the snakes out of their cages from time to time and let us hold them. Of course, there were a few kids who'd as soon touch a snake as eat a live frog, but for the rest of us, it was great. I remember being nervous at first--but snakes actually feel wonderful, so smooth and lithe and powerful, yet flowing. A bit like water, yet dry, which makes no sense, I realize.

So you're right about who cringes. I was lucky. More opportunities like that might mean fewer stomped snakes.

IBOY said...

Unfortunately, there is a fair percentage of the population that I wish would just stay home and watch t.v.