In this article, we take a look at a year in the life of a garter snake. There have been three different types of garter snakes recorded on SḴŦAḴ | Mayne Island: the northwestern garter snake, the puget sound (common) garter snake, and the wandering garter snake. Sharp-tailed snakes, which are an endangered species, have been documented on surrounding islands, but have yet to be recorded here – if you happen to come across a snake that could be the sharp-tailed snake (see below), snap a photo and let us know!

Sharp-tailed snakes are an endangered species yet to be confirmed on SḴŦAḴ | Mayne Island. Note the point at the end of the tail.

Emergence from the Hibernaculum

In April and May when the days warm up and the sun starts soaking into the rocks, garter snakes on the island wake from their collective hibernation and emerge from their hibernaculum ready to mate, eat and make merry all throughout the summer. Hibernacula are holes in the ground where snakes gather in the winter to survive the cold.

Continuing the Cold-Blooded Line

Garter snakes don’t travel far from the entrance of their hibernaculum before satisfying one of their basic instincts: mating. Males compete for females, twining their much smaller bodies around hers, many males vying for the attention of a single female. These mating sessions often form into a ”mating ball” which ends abruptly when one of the males successfully mates with the female and the others scatter, bereft by their inability to complete the task.

Common garter snake snakelet.

Garter snakes are ovoviviparous, which means the eggs hatch inside the female and she gives birth to live young 12 – 16 weeks after mating. During this time, females are focussed mainly on regulating their body temperatures, while males are keeping busy with lots of hunting and foraging. Larger females are able to hold more eggs, and so the number of snakelets born varies significantly, with between 3 – 40 newborns often recorded. The snakelets are independent from their mother, needing no training in order to feed and hide, but their tiny size can be a downfall. Not many of the snakelets make it to adulthood, falling prey to predators looking for a bite to eat.

Eating and Foraging

Garter snakes are generalists, meaning they prey on a wide variety of food in a wide variety of ecosystems. Feeding on creatures from crickets and earthworms to amphibians and fish, garter snakes can be found in fields, gardens, forests, rocky areas, wetlands and intertidal areas. Many gardeners welcome them into their backyards, as they are famous for keeping down slugs and other types of pests. Interestingly enough, garter snakes that hunt in freshwater habitats are a known predator to the roughskin newt, and are locked in a thrillingly slow ‘ecological arms race’, increasing their antidote to the extremely toxic newt, as the newt increases its toxins in response. A single roughskin newt can end up having enough toxin in its body to kill 25,000 mice or several adult humans, so the garter snake’s ability to chow down on these amphibians is quite a feat. The toxicity of roughskin newts on SḴŦAḴ | Mayne Island is not known.

Can you spot the wandering garter snake in the intertidal zone at David’s Cove?

If you’ve ever seen a snake in the intertidal area, then it’s likely the wandering garter snake, foraging for fish and other marine creatures in its salty habitat. This is a very unique behaviour in wandering garter snakes on the coast of B.C., and is truly a marvel to see! The wandering garter snake, sometime referred to as the western terrestrial garter snake or locally as a water snake, is the largest of the three snake species known to SḴŦAḴ | Mayne Island.

Survival and Life Expectancy

Garter snakes in turn are preyed upon by birds such as ravens, crows, hawks, and herons, as well as mammals such as raccoons and mink. When threatened, garter snakes are quick to hide in long grass, rock piles or under logs. Northwestern garter snakes in particular are well camouflaged with their earth toned scales and can disappear into an ecosystem quite efficiently. If this doesn’t work, garter snakes will release an extremely vile smelling musk, which they rub all over their bodies in hopes to deter their attacker. The musk will stay on your skin for days afterwards and demands much soaping and scrubbing, so alongside the threat of this and the fact that picking up snakes is stressful for them, it’s best to leave them be. Garter snakes will very rarely bite when threatened, but their tiny teeth aren’t particularly damaging or toxic to humans, so don’t worry if you’ve been nipped – but take it as a lesson.

Photo by Michael Oberman, winner of 14th Annual Smithsonian Magazine Photo Contest.

Threats

Garter snakes can live for more than 20 years, but face a number of threats during their lifetime, aside from being preyed upon. Habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation threaten all species of garter snakes. It’s important to conserve and take care of ecosystems when we can. This means eliminating the use of pesticides to help keep food sources healthy for snakes, electing to pick up garbage on the beach when you find it, and watching where you’re driving, as road mortality can be a significant threat to snake populations. The roads intersect snake habitat and pose a risk to animals who are crossing or resting on the pavement. If you’ve ever walked or biked along local roads in the spring and summer, you are sure to have seen evidence of this threat  to snakes, frogs or newts.

Northwestern garter snake next to a discarded bottle cap. Consider reducing your use of single-use plastic and cleaning it up when you find it in nature.

Cover objects and dense foliage are important features for snakes to use when hiding from predators. If you have fallen trees on your property, leave them be for snakes, amphibians, and other critters to use. As we have a deer overpopulation issue on the island, we are also seeing a decrease in dense native plant foliage. If you’re a gardener and you have an enclosed area, consider planting native shrubs and plants to help aid these snakes, who will in turn assist you in keeping those pesky slug populations at bay! When you come across them, these animals usually opt to slither away as fast as you can say, “Scaredy Snake”! So, there’s no need to worry about having them out and about, they won’t stick around if you’re near.

There are a number of pathogens, fungus, and bacteria that can affect reptiles and cause mortality. It’s important to be  aware of these risks and to do what you can to prevent spread. Take a look at these emerging diseases, their symptoms, and what you can do to help keep snakes, other reptiles, and amphibian populations healthy. Staying aware of what certain disease symptoms look like could help save populations.

Back into the Hibernaculum

After a warm and hopefully safe summer, snakes begin their preparations to head back into the underground before the frost hits. Snakes regulate their body temperature when hibernating by banding together in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, even with different species! Staying warm throughout the winter is key, until the W̱SÁNEĆ moon of WEXES (February/March), when frogs begin to wake and croak, and garter snakes on the island heed the call, emerging into the warming air and beginning their season above ground.

Want to learn more? Visit the BC Reptiles and Amphibians website.

Did you know that the SENĆOŦEN word for snake is S¸OȽḴE¸? Learn more about W̱SÁNEĆ words for nature here.


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