Quoddy Nature Notes – A Snake!

Quoddy Nature Notes
by Fred Gralenski

The commonest snake we have here in the Quoddy region, as well as across the continental U.S., is the Common Garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis. There are about a dozen subspecies in North America, and here we have two: the Eastern Common Garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, and the Maritime Common Garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis pallidulus. There is still some debate whether or not the Maritime subspecies is a true subspecies or just a variant of the Eastern. The Maritime is darker, and the dorsal line is less distinct or absent. Since snakes are cold-blooded, there is an advantage for a darker critter here in the northern climes.

I found my first snake this year, a Maritime Garter, sunning himself on the side of the road here in south Pembroke on April 30th. He was pretty docile and didn’t try to sneak away. He probably had just come out of hibernation and maybe even liked my warm hands. In some areas garter snakes have a sort of community site where dozens or even hundreds may hibernate together. I have never seen this, but an article in the March issue of ‘Journal of Light Construction’ caught my eye. In Rexburg, Idaho, a small house was recently acquired by the Chase bank because the previous owners moved out after they stopped paying their mortgage. Apparently the house is overrun (overcrawled?) yearly by hundreds of garter snakes. The local herpetologist suggests that the house had been built on or near a hibernating site that the snakes had been using for years, and the house had merely provided new quarters. Now I can’t fathom a relatively new house being porous to garter snakes, but that’s what the article states. If you do buy the house in sunny Idaho (Marked down to $109,000 from $175,000) please send me an invitation to visit so I can see my first “brumaculum”. I must warn you that the house is located ominously in the Snake river Valley.

My snake probably hibernated by himself in some nondescript spot in the woods under rocks, a blowdown , or some other forest debris, typically a little below the frost line, even though garter snakes are somewhat freeze tolerant. They can even survive hibernation completely submerged, if the water remains sufficiently oxygenated. Male garter snakes reach maturity when they are about 16 inches long, and my snake probably had romance on his mind soon after emerging from hibernation. If he is successful in finding a mate, the result of this union will be about a dozen 5 to 9 inch live snakes born sometimes from late July to early September. These snakes, according to one reference, may live up to 10 years, and reach maturity in about 2 years, although conditions and available food play a major role in growth and maturity. Garter snakes feed on insects, frogs, toads, baby rodents and birds but mostly earthworms. They have a marvelous range of subtle colorations along with the general Eastern Garter snake pattern, and also a whole range of personalities. Some garter snakes are pretty tolerant of people handling them, and some are feisty, and, after capture, will go through the complete gamut of upchucking their last meal, pooping, emitting a foul-smelling musk, and biting. One reference claimed that garter snakes do have a very mild neurotoxin in their bite, but probably the biggest problem is the possibility of salmonella. All reptiles should be handled carefully, and all of us students should wash our hands thoroughly afterwards.