Have you had a recent encounter with a small, colorful and scaly ribbon that swerved? The 2017 crop of baby snakes has been on the prowl for a couple of months now.
When it comes to the next generation, snakes display two life history approaches. Oviparous species lay adherent clutches of oblong, leathery-shelled eggs. Typically, the eggs are deposited May through June in shallow burrows in sunlit, sandy habitats and hatch about three months later. Local snakes that lay eggs include the rat snakes, ring-necked snakes, hog-nosed snakes, kingsnakes, the black racer, and the venomous eastern coral snake.
We also have a number of ovoviviparous snakes — that is, live-bearers — including the garter and ribbon snakes, the nonvenomous water snakes, and all of our pit vipers (cottonmouth, copperhead, rattlesnakes).
Our dainty and docile rough green snake departs from the norm, with females nesting above the ground inside cavities of living hardwood trees. The same female may return to lay in the very same tree hole year after year, and communal nesting has been documented.
Mud snakes and rainbow snakes (genus Farancia), aquatic species that possess brilliant black-and red coloration, also have unusual nesting habits. Females of these species attend their clutches, curling tightly around their incubating eggs. Eggs of these snakes do not hatch until September-October, with the hatchlings remaining underground in or near the nest (typically on a sand ridge above a river swamp) until they disperse the following spring.
I was in on a marvelous discovery a few years. A fellow from the Valdosta area called, mentioning that he’d found a giant indigo snake nosing about under the skirts of his mobile home. The snake, which proved to a be a corpulent 80-inch mud snake, was transported to Reed-Bingham State Park in Adel, Ga., where a day later it deposited 111 eggs, a clutch size record for the species. Park staff was elated when 69 adorable little mud snakes successfully hatched, synchronously, later that summer.
Our endearing eastern hog-nosed snakes (although colloquialisms include “spreading adder,” these nonvenomous toad-suckers never bite people) are also prolific. The record-size egg clutch for this species is 61 eggs.
Youngsters, all of 6 inches long and especially large-eyed and chunky compared to other snakes, are commonly seen crossing trails and roads in late summer/fall in the Savannah region. Immediately post-hatching, they are indeed capable of playing ’possum (i.e., exhibiting the death-feigning behavior for which they are famous).
Snakes are important constituents of our local ecosystems, both as predators and prey. Enemies of snakes abound, and most of our newborn snakes will not live to see adulthood. Predators of snakes include fish (bass, gar, bowfin), birds (shrikes, raptors, wading birds), bullfrogs, snapping turtles, alligators, raccoons, skunks and bobcats. Our lusciously elegant swallow-tailed kites are often seen carrying rough green snakes and other small serpents.
Did you know that newborn ringneck, garter and redbelly snakes — tiny threads of scales the size of small worms when they first appear on Earth — are often snared in spider webs?
In healthy ecosystems where snakes abound in numbers and diversity, ophidiophagous (snake-eating) snakes play a significant role. Here, small snakes are often consumed by larger ones.
Coachwhips, racers, eastern kingsnakes, coral snakes and the federally listed eastern indigo snake are notorious for their snake-eating tendencies. Because of its small size, a newborn snake may be eaten alive, slurped down like a spaghetti noodle. When snakes attack larger snakes, they dispatch their prey via constriction (kingsnakes), venom (coral snakes) or by savagely chewing on the other snake’s head to immobilize it (indigos, racers).
Snake species that have modest-sized litters of six to 16 young (rattlesnakes, pine snakes, indigos) produce relatively large babies (16 to 20 inches long). A newborn indigo or eastern diamondback, already a sizeable reptile, is large enough to eat an adult cotton mouse. In the wild, it will take these snakes five to seven years to reach their full adult sizes of 6 feet or more, and because of the high energy costs associated with reproduction, adult female rattlesnakes only give birth every two to three years.
The Holy Grail
For those passionate about snakes, discovering a brood of newborn pit vipers is the Holy Grail. A few years ago, while conducting a gopher tortoise survey on a remote part of Fort Stewart, I noticed some colorful, rubbery-appearing objects coiled on saw palmetto fronds 2 to 4 feet off the ground. I had stumbled into a litter of timber rattlesnakes.
Although snakes are generally regarded as lacking parental care, interactions between females and their young are more common than realized. Timber rattlesnake mothers stay with their young through their first shed skin event, which occurs about 10 days after they are born. Their presence may limit water loss experienced by the newborn snakes (until their scales harden). Also, their presence likely deters predators.
I hollered to my tortoise survey colleagues, “Watch your step, these are brand-new; Mom has to be close.”
Sure enough, as the little vipers began dropping from their palmetto perches like so many fanged grenades (upon hitting the ground they slithered, all eight of them, into an old armadillo burrow) one of my colleagues spotted her. She was on the ground, one big step to my right, well-hidden under hanging fronds, curled tight as rattlers are wont to do.
Dirk J. Stevenson is a naturalist, educator and the owner of Altamaha Environmental Consulting in Hinesville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.