By: Kristen Morrow, JCC Naturalist
People tend to have pretty passionate feelings regarding snakes. They either absolutely despise them and want them all destroyed, or they absolutely adore them, and laud their ecological benefits as mice eaters. It should come as no surprise that I am in the snake-loving camp, but it may come as a welcome surprise (to my snake-loving kin, that is) that the vast majority of the young students I teach seem to love these reptiles too!
We take just about any opportunity we can to inspire snake appreciation with an audience. Our two Fox Snake ambassadors do most of the heavy lifting. These snakes have lived in the CEC for over ten years, and in that time they have interacted with tens of thousands of people. They are so comfortable being handled, so docile, and so curious and exploratory, that they make for the perfect introduction to the serpent world. During the programs, we gently pull the snakes out from their travel cases to loud gasps, and always the question, “…wait, is that real??” We wait for the inevitable shrieks and giggles as the snake (around my neck at this point) starts to tunnel under my hair, into my sleeve, down the collar of my shirt, or into a large pocket (really anywhere cozy and warm). And when the moment that the students have been dying for comes, and they get to come up one at a time to hold the snake on their own, our hearts are filled watching the huge grin that spreads across each child’s face as they hold this animal in their (sometimes trembling) hands. It never fails.
Perhaps one or two students out of twenty refrain from holding the snake. And that’s okay. But the ratio is very different for the accompanying adults. Usually around 30-50% of these chaperones and teachers need to physically leave the room. While we do not judge that phobia necessarily, we are certainly heartened to find the opposite among our younger audiences, who are filled with a willingness to learn and be curious, even when there is fear.
This winter, a third snake joined the ranks of our education animals, if only temporarily. In January, we received a call from a man near Hills, IA who found a Garter Snake coiled up in his unheated garage. It wasn’t an ideal place for this snake to survive the winter, and he was concerned that she wouldn’t make it. We arranged to pick up the snake, and JCC Ranger Aaron Ohlsen delivered this feisty lady into our care. For the past four months, she’s basked under a heat lamp, eaten a good deal, and grown considerably. She never grew comfortable around us though, which is good, as she was heading back out to the wild once the weather permitted. For the first half of her visit, when students and visitors still streamed through the CEC doors, she got to teach many young children about her kind. Though we never handled her, kids watched as she curiously poked her head out from her hiding spot, flicking her tongue incessantly to smell us. They also got to see the beautiful coloration on her scales, and ask many questions about what her life is like. I was glad to have one more animal ambassador to breach the gap between fear and curiosity.
We’ve been preparing to say goodbye to our new friend for the past couple weeks as the weather has finally warmed. But last week, in a final memorable hurrah, she left us with perfect educational story, and possibly a way to inspire appreciation and curiosity for snakes in those who would feel otherwise.
As I was preparing for some deep cleaning of the animal enclosures last Friday, I received a pretty big shock: where once our single Garter Snake lived, now there were thirteen! Tiny dark gray bodies squirmed around, playfully slithering into the wood shaving bedding and under the newspaper layers, then periscoping their little heads out and peering up at me curiously. One of them kept yawning as wide as her little mouth could go.
Turns out, the female didn’t look so big and robust from sheer bodily growth alone. She had babies growing inside of her! Garter Snakes reproduce in a unique way. While most snakes are oviparous, meaning that they lay eggs, Garter Snakes are ovoviviparous. This means that the young grow in eggs inside the mother’s body, but when she gives birth, the eggs remain inside her, and the young emerge alive and squiggling. (There are also viviparous snakes, in which the young grow inside the mother without any egg, and are nourished through a placenta and yolk sac.)
A single female can birth between 10-40 young in a single litter. Our female birthed twelve, some rambunctious and exploratory, others wrapped into the tiniest coils, and hiding between the layers of newspaper that makes up the floor of their home. Even though they are small, only 5-7 inches long and more slender than a pencil, they are self-sufficient from birth and will start to make their way in the world without any parental care. Starting out, they’ll eat insects, slugs, snails, and earthworms. As they grow, they’ll start to eat mice, frogs, toads, fish, crayfish, and more.
Garter Snakes are among the most common and widespread of the 28 different snake species we’ll see here in Iowa. They can adapt to many environments, and can make a home in our backyards, city parks, and farms as well as in more natural forest and prairie homes. Thus, it’s pretty likely that if you spend anytime outdoors, you’ll come across one at some point, likely while they are basking in the sun. To those for whom this would be a nightmare, I encourage you to stop, give the snake some space, then simply observe. These harmless creatures definitely don’t want to be around you, and will waste no time in trying to find solitude elsewhere.
At the end of the day on Friday, I drove home with the thirteen snakes in my passenger seat, heading towards their new lives in the wild. I took them out to a nice natural area very close to where the female snake had initially been found. One by one, the snakes were released to make their way in the world. I was sad to see them go, even though our time together was brief, but I was also very gratified to have played a small role in ensuring that twelve more of these cool creatures made it into our ecosystems. I’m curious what their days have looked like since. Have they successfully hunted for food? Have they found cozy and safe places to hide? Have they experienced the comfort of the sun blazing down on them? Will they survive this week’s cold weather?
Whenever we end a snake program, we ask the students to do some reflecting. Were they kind of scared or nervous when they first saw the snakes? Did spending more time around them, and learning about their cool biology make them more comfortable? More curious? More appreciative? It’s a simple message overall, but clearly one that we adults can try to internalize more often. Having open minds and being open to curiosity and learning can be a remedy to fear, for snakes, and so much more.
6 Quick Facts About Other Iowa Snakes:
1.) The Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) is a dramatic actor that rolls over onto his back to play dead when a persistent threat is around. The snake will even feign a spasm of pain, before rolling over with mouth open and tongue out. Only when the coast is clear does the snake roll over and slither away.
2.) The Eastern Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum) is a type of kingsnake, and as such, will eat other snakes, including venomous snakes, when they find them. They actually are somewhat immune to the venom of these vipers.
3.) The Western Ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoletus) is an excellent climber that prefers to live in heavily wooded areas among rocky bluffs. They are hard to find, as they are often high up in trees, resting in tree hollows.
4.) Of the 28 species of snakes in Iowa, five are venomous: Prairie Rattlesnake, Timber Rattlesnake, Eastern Massasauga, Western Massasauga, and Copperheads. Learn more about identifying these five species here.
5.) The Western Foxsnake (Pantherophis ramspotti) is a passive snake commonly found throughout the state. Like many snakes, it will release a musky odor when it feels threatened (apparently, the smell is similar to a Red Fox’s musk, and is the namesake for this snake). If the snake cannot flee, it may vibrate its tail against the ground, as many other Iowa species do. Unfortunately, this defense often leads to misidentification and killing by humans. A great general rule: back up and leave snakes be, especially if you’re unsure of the species.
6.) The Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis) is a tiny species that grows to only 12-22 inches long. This snake is unique in that it is one of only a few species that eats an entirely insectivorous diet. Unfortunately, the increased use of insecticides is tied to the steep decline of this species, and today, it is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need.