Our landlord was up at the house today to take care of some yard work, so for Raven’s daily exercise I clipped on her leash and headed up the road. I haven’t been doing that as much since the forest has leafed out and all the birds have returned, since there’s only so much exercise I can give her through walking on a leash, but today I decided to walk down the next road to the neighbouring lake, where I could toss a stick in for her a few times.
It turned out to be a fortuitous decision, because just as we were starting down the last hill before reaching the lake, we discovered this beauty of a Black Rat Snake sunning on the road. At least four feet long, and a good inch and a half thick, it was the largest rat snake I’ve seen so far (admittedly, this is not a difficult accomplishment, as I could count the total number I’ve seen on one hand).
More than other snakes I encounter here in the woods of southern Ontario, Black Rat Snakes have that predatory look to their eye, that fierce glance that one sees in the faces of other carnivores such as hawks and wolves.
Look at the longitudinal muscles running along the sides of his spine – you can see them flexed where his “neck” curves. Snakes are practically all muscle, strong, used to help the creature move across the ground in the absence of legs (and, in the case of some, to suffocate and kill prey in the absence of claws).
By complete coincidence, a few hundred yards beyond the rat snake we discovered this old snake carcass lying at the side of the road. At first I thought it was a shed skin, but as I drew closer I could see the bones sticking out from the dried flesh. I’m not sure of the cause of death; it could have been a roadkill that has been picked over by scavengers and dried out in the sun, or it may be a hawk kill, quite possible the meal of one of the Red-shouldered Hawks in the area. I’m leaning toward the latter, mostly because the head and the tail remained intact, although I must admit I don’t know whether hawks just tear the flesh off of snakes, or if they eat them whole, but in bits.
Check out all those ribs. I’m surprised they’re still as intact as they are. The average vertebrate – you, your dog, the robin on your lawn – has a dozen or two pairs of ribs (the number varies by species; humans have 12 pairs, dogs have 13, horses have 18) attached to the thoracic vertebrae of the back, along with cervical (neck), lumbar (lower back) and caudal (tail) vertebrae that make up the rest of the spine. In snakes, the number of cervical, lumbar and caudal vertebrae are reduced, and the number of thoracic vertebrae greatly increased – some of the longest snakes may have upwards of 300 thoracic vertebrae, each with a pair of ribs attached. One particular gene complex, called the Hox genes, controls which type of vertebrae each segment becomes, depending on which ones are switched on in which segment. They also are involved in the development (or lack thereof) of legs.
I’d planned to do a bit more poking around the ‘net for more information on the eating habits of hawks, and developmental biology of snakes, but we seem to have exceeded our download limit for the day (we’re on satellite internet, which has the disadvantage of having a bandwidth quota), and the connection is reduced to slower-than-dialup speed, so the questions will have to wait for another day.