Snake encounters

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Many people are afraid of snakes, including many naturalists. I admit that I do not go out in the field looking for snakes, as I do for many other wildlife species. And I would rather handle a huge snapping turtle than any snake, even a tiny ringneck snake. But I don’t mind sharing my yard with a garter snake, and watching it move through the leaves and along the surface of the water in the tiny pond out front is fascinating.

Snakes really are amazing creatures. I have watched them move many times, and they can move quite fast, but exactly how they propel themselves along the ground without legs or feet was difficult to discern. Studying tracks in the sand gave me a better sense of how they move, as the pattern resembled the sideways push that skaters use to propel them on ice.

That was not quite an appropriate analogy. I later learned that snakes, utilizing their typical “S” body shape, are able to push off from both bends simultaneously. And that is but one of several completely different forms of snake locomotion.

One of the snake’s most well-known features is its forked tongue that constantly flicks the air. This functions as a very sensitive and highly specialized nose that detects molecules in the air.

All snakes are carnivores, and they have evolved some interesting strategies for subduing prey without the aid of appendages. Constriction is used by some, such as the milk snake that is found here on Long Island, and involves wrapping several coils of itself tightly around the prey. Some snakes employ venom, administered through specialized teeth, to subdue prey. There are three venomous snakes in New York State, none on Long Island, but there is some evidence that the island’s most interesting species, the hognose snake, may produce a toxin that can impact small prey.

The three venomous species in New York State—all members of the Viperidae family—can detect tiny differences in temperature several feet away with their pit organs. These snakes can hunt in total darkness, following the movement of prey and striking accurately with the aid of their pit organs alone.

How well developed the senses of hearing and sight are among snakes is unknown. They have no eyelids, but clear scales cover and protect the eyes. A cloudy fluid appears over the eyes when a snake is about to shed its skin. This is lymphatic fluid, and it forms between the old, outer skin and the new, inner skin to help separate the two before the old skin is shed.

I can’t think of any other group of animals that must shed its old skin as it grows, and why snake skin can’t grow larger in size to accommodate growth of the individual, as the skin of other reptiles does, is a mystery to me.

While cleaning up some old debris at Tuckahoe Hill last week, we encountered milk and ringneck snakes under a pile of asphalt shingles. One might think that old scraps of metal, pieces of plywood and other junk were the preferred habitats of snakes, but they are just easier to look for and spot in those places.

The milk snake, a small individual less than 2 feet in length, did not hang around long enough for a photo. These are quite beautiful animals, particularly the very young ones, with a striking pattern of red patches, gray bars and black lines, and it was nice to see a live specimen instead of the roadkilled ones I had previously seen on the South Fork.

The ringneck was nice enough to stick around for a photo. Considered a secretive species, this was the first ringneck I ever saw in the wild. Its favored prey is the red-backed salamander, an important member of the forest ecosystem that resides in the forest leaf litter.

Milk snakes and ringneck snakes are rarely seen because of their nocturnal hunting habit and the fact that they do not bask out in the open. Both the milk snake and the ringneck lay eggs in later this month; the former will often lay its eggs communally in the same location as eggs from other females.

The eggs hatch in two months. At that point in the year, the young have little time before they must find a suitable overwintering site. Biologists are not certain if the hatchlings even feed their first fall. This is one of many aspects of snake biology that remain a mystery.

Mike Bottini is a naturalist and author of The Southampton Press Trail Guide to the South Fork, Exploring East End Waters: A Natural History and Paddling Guide, and The Walking Dunes: East Hampton’s Hidden Treasure. Check www.peconic.org for Mike’s field naturalist classes.

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