9/27/2009

Forest Creatures: Snakes and Slugs (Warning: graphic photos)


I was touring one of my favourite big tree haunts recently when I spotted thissssss beautifully patterned forest resident. It reminded me that I was visiting the homes of many creatures that reside in the rain forest, and make up the web of life here. The occasional pile of purple poo from passing black bears was also a reminder that I must be aware of the larger forest residents. Cougars are regular visitors, too. Out here I am prey.

Today the garter snake was the one to make its presence known. Found under the Sooke River Super Cedar of Gargantuan Proportions (I really must streamline this naming thing), this snake was surprisingly fast. When I slowed down, so did the snake. It stretched out before me and sunned a bit in a shaft of light piercing the forest canopy. We stared at each other for a while, his beady black eye to my blue one.




Here is how I envision a garter snake deciding on potential prey:
  • Is it alive?
  • Will it fit in my mouth and down my throat?
  • Can I catch it?
If the prey satisfies these criteria, it is on the menu. I found out on a hike last year, that the garter menu includes the second biggest slug in the world, the Banana Slug (more than 20cm). I didn't think anything ate slugs. Compared to dung beatle fare, slug could be considered a delicacy. After all, slugs are basically snails without shells - large escargot.


The snake did not move while I photographed it attempting to consume this large lunch. How could it? I was simultaneously mesmerized and mortified. I continued on my hike. Both snake and slug were gone when I returned. Note: you can click on any of the photos to get a blown up view of this amazing natural phenomena. Just thought you would like to know...

The garter snake will also eat small birds, leeches, amphibians, small rodents, and other snakes. This snake is very aquatic and in coastal areas fish makes up a large part of their diet. The snake I saw recently was next to the Sooke River, so the tiny salmon I was watching that day were no doubt in trouble when the snake hit the river.

Garters are fast on land and in water. As I watched the snake it slithered off quickly. I had to move fast to follow, hunched over and moving through the understory. About 10 meters away the snake bee-lined (snake-lined?) for a hole at the base of a fallen tree, right under the root ball. Had I discovered a snake den, or "communal hibernacula"?
Garter snakes spend the winter in communal dens, sharing space and warmth through the cold temperatures. This looked like one. I had a sudden urge to stick my hand in. Why? I resisted. One should not harass wildlife. Especially snakes. Do not touch garter snakes unless you want to see their defense mechanism - they will poop on you (it is very smelly). If they feel threatened they could also bite. Best to enjoy them from a distance, like all wildlife.

Here is a group that is trying to improve life for another coastal snake, the sharp-tailed snake, on Salt Spring Island. They remind us that snakes are an important part of our ecosystem and should be treated with respect. The Salt Spring group educates the public on habitat conservation and builds hibernacula for sharp-tailed snakes. You can build a hibernacula in your own yard or garden. How fascinating would that be?

I will be watching the Sooke River Cedar Hibernacula location in the spring when the snakes will be out on warm days to stretch their bodies (adults are 46cm to 1.3m) and warm in the sun. After being bundled in a coil with a hundred friends all winter, they will be ready for mating. Mating involves bundling up in a ball again, this time with many males surrounding a single female. Garter snakes are live-bearing and give birth in July or August. Baby snakes are born fully developed, and litters range from as few as 5 to as many as 80.

Every creature in the forest ecosystem is important, and that includes snakes and slugs. Slugs are the recyclers of the forest and clean up dead and decaying matter and return nutrients to the soil. Snakes keep insect and rodent populations in check. Many forest animals feed on snakes, including raccoons, blue herons, eagles, and owls. If you can respect slugs and snakes, and recognize their important place in the cycle of the forest, surely you can respect everything in the forest. Such respect is sssssorely needed today.

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