A couple of weeks ago most of the northeast enjoyed a long stretch of very unseasonably warm temperatures. Here in eastern Ontario we had nearly a week of days above 20°C (68°F), a couple of times warm enough that my winter-acclimated body started protesting the “heat” (comes mid-summer, I’ll be laughing that I found this temperature hot). But it was glorious, from a recreational perspective. I’ve been busy wrapping up a couple of work projects, but I made sure I took some time to get out and enjoy the weather every day.
From an ecological point of view, I’m curious to see if the early spring will cause serious disruptions. The warm temperatures were sustained long enough to trigger trees and shrubs into leafing out about two weeks ahead of schedule; our garden crocuses are bloomed and done already, when last year they didn’t even flower until April 9. It feels like mid-April out there, which has been a little disconcerting the last few days while it’s still been March.
And speaking of early things… One afternoon Dan pointed these snakes out to me. They were writhing in a small pile on our lawn. I’d never seen this behaviour before but I knew immediately what was going on, so I grabbed my camera and went out to try for a few photos.
It was a mating ball, of course. Male snakes emerge first, in the early spring, as temperatures begin to rise and the hibernacula where the snakes spent the winter begin to warm. Usually a couple of weeks after the first females begin to come out. She broadcasts a pheromone as she goes about her routine, which very quickly attracts nearby males.
She’s often noticeably larger than the males are. In the photo above, she’s the darker olive-yellow individual on the left, and the brighter yellowish head on the right belongs to a male (the male, in fact; by the time this photo was taken, they were copulating).
The females are a scarce resource, and males literally wrestle over who gets to court her. Sometimes a dozen snakes or more can form a writhing mass of bodies with the female somewhere in the middle of it all. That’s what was going on when Dan first spotted it, I think. By the time I got out there with my camera, one male had come out the winner.
As I stood there snapping photos, a few hopeful males, late to the party, slithered in, checked out the situation, then slithered away again without joining in. I recall reading that the males track the pheromone left behind on the ground as the female slithers, so I’m thinking maybe these males have followed her scent trail only to find, once they finally reached her, that she was no longer broadcasting the pheromone. Or maybe she starts broadcasting a different one that says, “Sorry boys, I’m taken”? Perhaps the successful male gives them a fierce look that says, “Don’t you dare lay a coil on my girl”? In any case, none of the newcomers even bothered making an attempt to join her.
Though I didn’t notice any reference specifically stating so, I assume the successful male is the one who manages to get his hemipenis positioned and inserted into the female first, rather than winning any sorts of one-on-one battles with the other males the way (say) rutting deer do, or winning the female’s favour the way (say) displaying prairie-chickens do.
The hemipenis of snakes is sort of sac-like and usually held within the body, but expands and everts when the male is preparing to mate. In many species it has barbs or hooks that make it difficult to remove it from the female while it’s everted. Once it was just down to the two mating snakes, after a few moments the female decided she wanted to leave and started slithering away; but the two were still joined, presumably because of these barbs, and I got a look at the copulatory site as they twisted their bodies about. The female is the upper, duller snake in this photo, the male the lower, brighter one. They quickly disappeared into the long grass so I didn’t see what happened after that.
So that was kinda cool! Spring continues to march onward here, which is giving me lots to look at and (hopefully!) lots to post about. Stay tuned!
I admit I find November a rather uninspiring month, nature-wise. So barren, so still. So I’m going to go back into my archives and pull out a subject I’ve been hoarding since June. Can you see him in this photo?
I nearly missed him myself, that day. It was on one of our MAPS visits to our Blue Lakes site, and I was just preparing to go check the nets when I happened to notice… something… in the grass that made me pause and take a closer look. And the something turned out to be a snake. He wasn’t moving, I hadn’t seen him slide into that spot; it must just have been the wide pale stripe of his belly that caught my eye.
It turned out to be a Smooth Green Snake, Liochlorophis vernalis. This is the first (and so far only) individual I’ve seen of this species, and I was pretty excited. I’m not sure why I’ve never seen one before; according to the Ontario herpetological atlas they’re not uncommon and can be found throughout southern Ontario below Sudbury. Interestingly, though, they do seem to be more frequently found along the edge of the Canadian Shield and in a few clustered spots like the Bruce Peninsula or the southern part of the Niagara Escarpment. Since our MAPS sites are Shield edge, perhaps that explains why my first one was there.
In any case, I’d never seen one before, so I spent some time studying this guy. He did this interesting thing where he held his body upright like this, stiffly, and every now and then waved back and forth a little bit. I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to camouflage himself by pretending to sway in the wind like a piece of grass (even though there was no breeze that day) or if by moving back and forth he could get a better sense of where we were relative to him. He continued doing this even once he finally left the grasses and slithered out onto the open rock, so I’m inclined to think the latter. We took a few videos of the behaviour; here’s one:
Smooth Green Snakes eat mostly invertebrates, though I think they’re opportunistic enough they wouldn’t turn down a small vertebrate like a salamander or spring peeper, should they come across one. I’ve been calling this one a he, but I don’t actually know the sex. If it were actually a female, she might have been looking for a place to lay her eggs, which they may do anytime from June to late summer. They deposit the 4 to 6 inch-long eggs in a soft, protected spot like a pile of rotting vegetation or wood, and these hatch in 4 to 23 days.
I found the 4 days figure rather startling; I gather that a few rare individuals may retain the eggs inside their body till near to hatching, and would guess that’s more likely what’s happening with the 4 day situation. I can’t really see any vertebrate going from zygote to hatched in only four days.
I left the snake while it was still in the grass, but Dan sat and watched it for a while. Eventually it came out and crawled across the rocks toward him, slipping under our data binder and appearing out the other side before disappearing again into the grass on the other side of the rocks. They’re supposedly fairly docile snakes, slow to bite, but we didn’t try catching him. It was enough just to enjoy watching him where he was.
I was standing beside my raised garden beds yesterday, staking my indeterminate tomato plants for the third time this summer, when Dan paused in his lawn-mowing and a few moments later came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. He held out his hand as I turned around: in it he had lightly grasped a small, dark snake with pale neck markings. I exclaimed something like, “Oh, a Ring-necked Snake!” and dashed inside to grab my camera before he could say a word.
As it turns out, upon referencing my reptiles field guide, it’s not a Ring-necked Snake after all, despite its superficial similarities. Ring-necks (Diadophis punctatus; our subspecies is edwardsii) are the most well-known to bear this marking, but two other small snakes also do: Red-bellied Snakes (Storeria occipitomaculata; our subspp is occipitomaculata) and very young Northern Brown Snakes (Storeria dekayi dekayi; also known as Dekay’s Brown Snake). Although you can’t see it in these photos, this individual had a reddish belly, which rules out Northern Brown Snakes. The pale neck ring is solid in Ring-necks but broken into three large blotches in Red-bellies (occasionally not present at all, or only as a ghosted brown area, which has been the case with other individuals I’ve seen). So this is a Red-bellied Snake.
It’s also a baby. Look how absolutely tiny it is! Many snakes give birth to live young, and the Storeria are among these. Baby Red-bellies are born at 7-10 cm (3-4 inches) long; they’ll eventually grow to reach 20-25 cm (8-10 inches) as adults. Ring-necks are a little larger at birth, and grow to be longer adults. Litters (broods? clutches?) are usually around 7-8 snakelets, but can number as many as 20-30 (presumably from the very old, very large females).
Adults are largely predators on slugs, so are great snakes to have in one’s garden. They’re also usually nocturnal, spending their days hidden under logs or stones, so I’m not sure why this one happened to be out and about yesterday afternoon. I’ve read that Red-bellies are very docile snakes not typically given to self-defense, and indeed this little guy made no attempts to bite or threaten, wishing only to get away. Though perhaps that’s because he knew his itty-bitty teeth would have been unlikely to puncture my skin anyway.
I took a few photos then released him into the long grasses of the meadow, away from the mower. I’ve never seen a Ring-necked Snake so that would’ve been really cool, but it’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen a Red-bellied and I could count my total encounters with the species on one hand, plus this was such a little baby to boot, so it was still a great discovery.
Come sit beside me, I’ll tell you a tale
Of loving and longing and terrible betrayal;
A story quite sad, but wonderful, too.
Here, have a seat; come and listen, won’t you?
Our story begins with a maiden so fair,
With sparkling eyes, and long flowing hair.
Her heart glowed as pure as the light of a star,
And men came to court her from near and afar.
She saw many suitors, but none she desired,
And as the years passed she grew ever tired.
Was there really no man for whom she could fall?
She couldn’t believe there was no one at all.
The thought made her sad, so one sunny day
She paused at a well that she passed on her way.
She extracted a coin and she tossed it inside.
“I just want true love, nothing more!” so she cried.
Of course, nothing happened, it was just a well –
What did she expect, a genie, a spell?
She turned to the road from the well with a sigh
And carefully wiped a small tear from her eye.
Three months had gone by and she’d all but forgot
Her wishing-well plea and the help that she’d sought.
But when she came home one warm summer night
There waiting for her was a frog, on the light.
It clung to the chime in a warm rosy glow
And turned its small head to say brightly, “Hello!
I’m quite glad you’re home, I’ve been waiting awhile.
May I come in?” and it gave her a smile.
Well, what would you do, were you in her shoes?
You’d be qutie surprised, and likely confused.
She stared at the frog, her mouth hanging wide
But gathered herself and gestured inside.
It followed her in and took one of the seats
While she busied herself getting tea and some treats
She sat down beside it and cautiously said,
“How may I help? Need you food or a bed?”
“I have need of neither, for I am a frog;
I’ll have crickets for lunch, and I’ll sleep in a log.
What I must ask is a great deal more:
I have a small house and can’t open the door.”
She scratched her fair head. “I’m not sure I see…
Is the door stuck? Or lost you the key?”
“The door opens fine,” it said, batting a hand.
“The problem is that I’m no longer a man.
An old evil witch whom I passed on the road
I offered no smile, so she made me a toad.”
“But you’re a frog,” the girl pointed out.
“Frog didn’t rhyme. Besides, there’s no doubt
Either amphibian would be too short.
So now to get in I will need your support.”
“It would give you trouble, I have to agree.
But might I ask why it is you chose me?”
“Are you surprised that I came to you?
In all the land no one’s heart is as true.
And also I hope if the spell is undone,
How lucky would I be if you were the one?”
“The one to do what?” she asked with a frown.
“To open the door,” he said, and hopped down.
“Now will you, or won’t you, help a poor man
Who’s in a small bind and could use a good hand?”
Whether man or a frog – not sure which you are –
I can’t refuse help if the place is not far.”
“I’m incredibly grateful,” said the frog with a grin.
“Shall we go now? I’m keen to begin.”
And so they stepped out to head to his home.
She took nothing with her save toothbrush and comb.
(He’d promised the journey would not take too long,
But better to be safe should something go wrong.)
She thought that he’d lead her along into town,
But rather than uphill they turned and went down.
He moved along quickly – though small for a frog;
Just to keep up she broke into a jog.
It didn’t take long till she ran out of breath.
“I need to pause here, or you’ll run me to death.
I won’t be long, I just need a short sit.
Go on ahead, I’ll catch up in a bit.”
“Quite fine by me,” he said with a wink.
“I’ll stop at that pond up ahead for a drink.”
As the frog hopped away she lay back in the grass
And stared up at the sky to watch the clouds pass.
Ten minutes later she was startled awake
By the sudden appearance on her lap of a snake.
A small narrow green thing with little black eyes;
From its expression it shared her surprise.
“My goodnesss! I’m sssorry, don’t mean to intrude,”
The snake said, “I ssslipped as I grabbed at sssome food.
I fell from the tree, but I’ll be on my way.”
She waved after him. “Hope you have a nice day!”
She hadn’t been meaning to fall in a doze,
And with thoughts of the frog, so now quickly she rose.
She hurried to catch up the frog at the pond,
Hoping he hadn’t gave up and gone on.
She reached the pond edge but no one was there.
“Mr Frog?” she called out to the warm summer air.
“He is down here with me,” said a low rumbly voice.
“I didn’t expect I’d be offered a choice.”
“What choice would that be?” she nervously said –
A deep voice like that surely meant he was dead.
She peered in the water and gulped back a scream,
For there was a ‘gator, its eyes all a-gleam.
“Why, what’s up for lunch. Such options there are!
Should it be frog legs? Or maiden tar-tar?”
The beast licked its lips and gave a broad smile.
“I think I’ll have maiden, it has been a while…”
“My vote’s for neither,” she said, grabbing a stick.
“For one thing, I’m sure I would make you be sick.
I’m on the rag, it’d ruin the flavour.
And as for the frog legs, they’ve gone out of favour.”
“I don’t believe you.” It gave her the eye.
“You smell clean to me, it’s clearly a lie.”
Then it leapt from the water and snapped at her arm.
She jabbed with her stick and fell back in alarm.
The ‘gator’s bite missed and she chose not to linger
In case it decided to try for a finger.
She dashed down the road, her head in a fog
Of guilt-stricken grief for the fate of the frog.
When finally her tears dried enough she could see,
She paused a the base of a giant oak tree.
Nothing there looked like the places she knew.
It seemed she was lost; she knew not what to do.
As she stood there with her hands intertwined,
She heard a soft sound of the rustling kind.
It came from the leaves underneath a small shrub,
And as she stood watching there out popped a grub.
Well, out popped a lizard, the grub in its jaws,
But one so enormous it gave her a pause.
When it saw her staring the lizard did say,
“Kint top a tock, ut ahg uh gud ay.”
“But wait!” she called out. “Which way to the town?”
“Mrmph it phway!” it it said, without slowing down.
She looked where it pointed – nothing but bush –
But gave a small shrug and walked in with a push.
The forest was dark and without much around.
She went quite a way without hearing a sound.
But then from some rocks she heard a dry rattle,
A sound that tells instincts, “you’d better scadaddle!”
She froze in her tracks and tried not to move.
“Well, what have we here?” said a voice, low and smooth.
“A lovely losst maiden, it sssure looksss to me,
How lucky I’m hungry; my dinner you’ll be.”
The serpent then slithered out into her view: A monstrous snake – she guessed seven-foot-two.
A size that could easily swallow her whole,
And go for a week feeling comfortably full.
Before she could move, the rattlesnake struck,
But grabbed just her dress by some stroke of luck.
She didn’t allow it the time to retry,
Or even a chance to wish her goodbye.
Blindly she ran, off into the trees,
Crashing through stumps and bruising her knees.
Finally she reached a small sandy glade.
She stopped for a rest, at the edge in the shade.
Hands on her knees, she stared at the dirt,
And spotted some tracks that made her alert: A long narrow trail, and there, just beyond,
A snakeskin! Still fresh, the snake not long gone.
Surprise turned to dread as she heard a soft sound,
And she quietly grabbed a thick stick from the ground.
It’d followed her here! Well, she’d let it see
A dinner for snake she wasn’t to be.
She didn’t look twice when it stuck its head out.
She crashed the stick down in a great forceful clout.
The snake gave a cry of alarm and surprise –
She could nearly see all the stars in its eyes.
“The heck was that for? I coulda been dead!
Thank goodness your stick was just wood and not lead!”
“I’m dreadfully sorry!” she truthfully said.
“Afraid I mistook you for another instead.
Please do forgive me, I’ll be on my way.
You wouldn’t believe, it’s not been my day.”
She trudged along, weary, longing for home
(And wishing she wasn’t so scared when alone).
She wasn’t too certain she’d gone the right way;
It felt like she’d walked in large circles all day.
Just when she felt about ready to crack,
She popped out of the trees onto a dirt track.
Delighted, she pondered which way she should go,
With nothing to guide her, and no way to know.
But then she caught sight of some blue in the green:
The small little pond where the ‘gator had been?
Slowly (in case the great beast was still there)
She crept to the pond and peered round with care.
She quickly could see it was not the same one:
The other’d had branches concealing the sun.
Here, silver birds called and screamed from the sky,
While many small turtles sunbathed waterside.
They seemed unconcerned by the things in the air,
Soaking the sun up without any care.
As she stood wondering what to do now –
Maybe try asking directions to town –
A large painted turtle paused by her side
And watching the others it casually sighed.
“It seems that each summer flies faster than last.
I’ve seen twenty-six and as each one has passed,
I’ve looked forward to taking my long winter sleep,
Holding my breath, and buried down deep.
Now, I’m an old turtle but many new born
Face many perils and might not make it till morn’.
For instance, some turtlets that hatched just today
Can’t make it to water, a log in their way.
Perhaps you could help? They’re not too far back –
Just near that tree at the side of the track.”
“I’ll do what I can,” she said looking ’round,
“But before you go, could you point me to town?”
She found the small hatchlings just where she’d been told,
And fashioned her dress skirt in to a thick fold.
She placed them inside, lifting one at a time,
Then walked through the mud to the low waterline.
As she set the last free and sat watching it go,
She heard a small voice call out to her: “So!
Finally made it, I see! Is your normal style
Keeping frog princes waiting awhile?”
She turned and looked down, and there the frog sat,
Smiling bemusedly (and seeming intact).
“You didn’t get eaten!” she exclaimed in delight.
“Oh, that darn ‘gator – you gave me a fright!”
So pleased was she feeling she stretched her arms out,
Collected him up and kissed his small snout.
There was a bright flash that blinded her eyes,
And she let go of the frog with a start of surprise.
Then standing before her was a tall handsome man
Who smiled and reached down to offer a hand.
“You wouldn’t believe just how awkward it’s been
To be a large man stuffed in a frog skin!
I’m eternally grateful! How can I repay?
If it’s in my means, then whatever you say.”
She took his hand shyly and rose from the ground.
Feeling quite speechless, she brushed dirt from her gown.
It’s not every day that a frog, understand,
Suddenly up and turns into a man.
It took her a moment to come to her senses
(Attractive young men just disarm her defenses).
He’d offered her anything within his means,
And his eyes were quite honest, whatever he’d been.
She considered the risks of (stranger or not)
Inviting him home (he was pretty hot).
“I guess you don’t need me to help with your home…
So maybe for starters, lead me to my own?
And if you had time, if you’ve nowhere to be…
You’re perfectly welcome to stay for a tea…”
Of course you must know how the story then ends:
Happy together, a great tale for friends.
Still to this day she firmly ascribes
Her happiness to a wish made well-side.
(And okay, there was no betrayal, really,
But loving and longing – I got two out of three.)
The October edition of House of Herps is currently looking for a host! Contact Amber and Jason (hosting [at] houseofherps [dot] com) if you’re interested in hosting next month. If you can’t host but would still like to participate, send your submissions to submissions [at] houseofherps [dot] com
I’m housesitting for my parents this week, while they cavort about southern Pennsylvania. I’m here primarily to look after the horses, which are a little like dogs in that they require daily care, but are a lot harder to leave with a friend or take to a boarding kennel. My mom brings hers inside at night, into a hoop-style greenhouse that’s been converted into a stable. The original “floor” of the greenhouse is sand, though mats have been put down in the stalls.
First thing after I get up, before I even sit down with my own breakfast (because I tend to dawdle over breakfast, browsing the ‘net), I go out to put the horses out. Clearly I’m in a bit of an early-morning haze still, as I didn’t immediately notice the above in the floor; I’d already passed by it once before seeing it. My first thought was oh, raccoons found a turtle nest, what a shame. My second thought was hey, isn’t it neat that a turtle laid her eggs in here – certainly a great location.
And my third thought was, wait a minute… something’s not quite right for a raccoon predation. The hole’s too small for what I’d expect. And there’re no obvious claw marks. Plus the eggshells don’t look quite right.
And then I spotted this guy:
Sitting in the grass shoots right beside the path I’d come in along. How the heck had I missed it? No wonder the hole didn’t look right for a raccoon – the baby turtles had actually hatched!
I looked around: tracks everywhere, criss-crossing back and forth over the soft sand. Look closely and you can see the footprints on either side of the central tail line. I started paying more attention, and then I noticed another baby turtle, and then a third.
They seemed to have hatched in the middle of the night, and had had some time to make it up and down the stable corridor. Most probably, if everything had gone according to plan, the baby turtles would be long gone by the time I got there in the morning, and all I would’ve found would be the empty nest. But the greenhouse hoops are affixed to a wooden frame, which created a four-inch (10cm) tall barrier that stopped the turtlets up short. I don’t know if mama turtle came in over this wooden ledge – it wouldn’t’ve been much of an impediment for her size and strength – or if she came through one of the two doors at the ends, which I’d had closed and locked for the night. Either way, the baby turtles weren’t going anywhere.
I dashed back to the house to get my camera. They were especially obliging. Nobody was moving about anymore – exhausted from crawling all night? Or just by nature more sleepy during the day? Although I wouldn’t go anywhere near the business end of an adult snapping turtle (and I’d even approach the back end with caution, they’ve got incredible reach with that long neck), the jaws on these little babies were so tiny there wasn’t any threat even if they did try to bite.
As it was, they were very quiet and non-aggressive, very much unlike more mature individuals I’ve encountered at roadsides. When I picked them up they pulled their heads in and wrapped their tail about their feet. After a few moments, this one seemed relaxed enough to stick its head out again.
I don’t know if it’s possible to sex baby snapping turtles at this young age, and I didn’t try looking. I do know, however, that the sex of turtles is determined by the incubation temperature. Very high (over 30°C/86°F) or low (under 20°C/68°F) average temperatures result in almost exclusively females, while intermediate ranges produce males. At least four hours a day is required at the max temperature. Interestingly, because eggs aren’t all buried at the same depth, temperature within a nest can be stratified, with eggs at the top being considerably warmer than those at the bottom, resulting in mixed-sex nests.
This nest didn’t look very deep, and considering that it was in a greenhouse where the temperature escalates in the mid-summer sun, my suspicion is that they were all females. Females of many turtle species will return to the place where they hatched once they’re finally old enough to mate themselves. Wouldn’t it be neat to have them come back? Of course, something would have to be done about that wooden ledge.
This individual seemed to have had a run-in with something. A sibling? A mouse? It was missing its tail, the remaining stump a little bloody, although the rest of it seemed okay. However, whenever it got flipped over (as it was when I found it) it was unable to right itself. Snapping turtles have very long tails, and clearly they play an important part in turning over. I wonder if they’re used for stability in walking or as a rudder in the water – either way, almost certainly the handicap means this baby will be among the early mortalities. (The expression on her face clearly says, “Well? Don’t just sit there snapping photos, help me up!”)
I couldn’t let the horses out while there were baby turtles in the aisle (how often does that sentence get said?), so I grabbed a bucket and started collecting them up. I spent about fifteen minutes going up and down the aisle, checking in the weeds growing at the edges, amongst the loose hay, in all the corners, even peeked in the stalls to see if any might have slipped under the door (didn’t look like it). I gathered a total of 20 by the time I felt I’d found them all.
Meanwhile, the horses were getting impatient. What the heck was taking so long? They wanted out! They’d whicker at me in annoyance: Mother never keeps us waiting. When the turtles were out of harm’s way I finished with the horses, then did one last sweep of the aisle before walking the bucket down to the river.
I wasn’t sure where the best place to release them was. In the wet meadow? By the pond? Down by the river? I finally opted for the river because it was the easiest to access from where I was, plus I figured that the sandy banks were probably closer to a normal nesting location by which the turtlets could orient themselves. I tipped the bucket over to let them leave it on their own.
They hurried out, fanning out from the bucket but all invariably heading toward the water.
They were a bit apprehensive about me standing and watching, but a couple of the braver turtlets moved purposefully forward anyway. They were so light that the muddy bank edge that sucked at my shoes with wet gloppy noises was of no consequence to them.
Two reached the water while I stood and watched. I was a bit surprised to see that the surface tension was strong enough to keep them buoyed; I’m not sure if this was due to the extra sand on their shells, or if they’re normally just very light. I popped these two under the water to break the tension, and they paddled about – one came back to the shore and stuck its nose out, while the other swam away and out of sight.
I left the rest of them; at the rate they were going, put off by my presence as they were, it would take them a while to reach the water or wherever they wanted to go, and I had work to get back to. Turtlet survival is pretty low through their first year, so probably most of these little ones won’t make it anyway, but I felt they would be reasonably safe where I left them for as long as it took for them to reach the water, anyway. Maybe, in a few years, one or two will return.