All species have a story that can be told, but only humans have the ability to communicate that story, at least in our own eyes. The way the story is told most certainly is biased, depending on the relationship and interaction with whatever species the story is being told about. For instance, someone may tell a story about the wonderful edible qualities of stinging nettle and how they love to eat stinging nettle as though they were collard greens or something. Someone else may describe the utter horrors of falling into a patch of stinging nettle and the resulting burning and itching that would accompany such a mishap. The same thing applies to snakes. We can all recount snake experiences and they are almost always quite different, depending on the love/hate relationship the storyteller has with whatever snake they encountered. Almost all of them, particularly if you are a southerner or if alcohol was involved, usually begin with, "Well there I was..." and then involve some type of detail of ones exploits in battling the beast for untold number of minutes that ultimately ends in the death of the serpent, not unlike a typical fantasy tale of the heroic knight versus the mighty fire-breathing dragon. This story is not like that, but rather what I hope will be a thought-provoking insight into the world of a snake, at least as I perceived it at the time of the encounter.
So, there I was, walking a long the trail at Buffalo Creek Park. I just finished up doing some GPS work for the next phase of trail construction. I was hot, thirsty, and on the edge of being exhausted from fighting with rhododendron and doghobble thickets that so frequently lined the streams that I was trying to map. I was through for the day and on my way back to the truck when I happened to notice something laying on the side of the trail where I was soon to pass.
|Eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)|
A garter snake that large has lived for a pretty long time. Typical life span is around 15 years, so that's pretty good for a typically small snake species. Size is a product of age and nutrition. With an adequate food supply and low number of predators there is lots of opportunity for growth. Once a snake like this gets old, they tend to stop growing lengthwise and just get "fat and sassy," not unlike humans.
This garter snake, as you can see from the picture, picked himself out a nice little sunny spot to warm up which is what cold-blooded animals must do in order to carry out their biological functions. In order to maximize warming surface, this snake had relaxed himself enough to get good and flat, thereby exposing as much skin to the sun as possible.
This snake was quite interested in me, as I walked by and got my camera into position for taking its picture. Each movement I made stimulated tongue flicks and caused the snake to move its head in my direction. I never experienced that type of behavior with garter snakes before. Most lay quite still until you try to grab them and then they take off as quickly as they can. Obviously this snake wasn't interested in me as a prey item, but it was certainly interested in whether or not I would do it harm. A garter snake that has attained that much size can put up a considerable fight and I took this as a warning that it would not be wise to tick this snake off, because he had no intentions of leaving his nice little sunny spot.
Garter snakes are not what I call aggressive snakes. Small ones are easy to catch and aside from emitting copious amounts of musk from their cloacal glands when picked up, they rarely if ever bite. Large adults, while not necessarily aggressive, rarely give up ground initially, will bluff strike repeatedly if you get too close, and will bite the you-know-what out of you if you try to pick them up. As a general rule, I don't pick up garter snakes without gloves. I don't like my hands stinking all day and I don't like getting bit. Garter snakes, when they bite, like to chew tiny holes into your fingers, hands, and wrists. Their saliva is mildly neurotoxic (but non-lethal), aiding in digestion of their prey. The result in a bite to humans is one that swells and bleeds profusely. Initially, the pain is pretty intense, especially if they get you with their back fangs which are extra large and extra sharp. That pain quickly dulls as the saliva acts almost like a numbing agent. Some people do experience tingling and numbness at the bite site for hours after the incident. I have not experienced this myself, but I try to avoid getting bitten at all costs, as this is stressful for all involved. You have to understand, a snake, no matter what species it is, has no interest in me as a food item. The only reason a snake has to bite me is to defend itself. It is up to me to be sensible enough to avoid being bitten by not annoying the snake.
|Notice the odd look of the left eye.|
|Notice the right eye and how different it looks from the left eye in the previous photo.|
|Another look at the left eye.|