Snakes on a Plain

Our month of change is coming to a close. May is an amazing month out here. In the space of only a few days, we witness a stunning transformation. In the blink of an eye, we manage to go from a barren landscape, just recovering from the ravages of a northern winter to a lush and verdant pastoral scene. Everything wakes up in May. Buds that have been straining against their confines finally burst free, the air fills with the scent of fresh pollen and the busy sounds of returning birds. Insects emerge from their hiding places, crawling out into the newly warm sunshine, but they aren’t the only creatures to find their way out of the darkness.

Up in my neck of the woods, we get to witness something truly remarkable. Every May in central Manitoba is marked by the emergence of the largest concentration of snakes in the world.

In a nondescript piece of prairie and aspen parkland, over 50,000 red-sided garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) emerge after a six month sleep from large caves in the limestone bedrock, bringing the underbrush to life with their constant slithering.

So what makes this nearly 12,000 hectare bit of scrubland snake mecca? As they say in real estate: location, location, location. It’s not the habitat above the ground that counts, but what’s below it. Much of central Manitoba is underlain by layers of limestone and dolomite, dating back 300 to 500 million years ago.  Limestone can be dissolved by water and over time, it has eroded away large hollows in the area, creating a formation known as karst topography.  You can find crevasses and caverns of different shapes and sizes all over the Interlake region. I have quite a few further north in the forests I call home, but none are quite as large as the network of five caverns that crisscross under the Narcisse Wildlife Management Area.

They’re also pretty deep, stretching down below the frost line, which is what makes them so attractive to snakes, because unlike many other cold-blooded critters, snakes don’t keep well in a freezer. So, after waiting out the worst of the cold, their internal clock tells them it’s time to wake up, sending the snakes up to the surface.

When that happens at the Narcisse dens, it’s a sight to behold: thousands of snakes, milling about in the dens and and

Red-sided garter snakes at the dens in Narcisse, Manitoba

surrounding areas. They stick around for almost a month after they first glimpse the sunshine because this is one of the few opportunities for this otherwise solitary creature to mix up the genetic pool. As soon as they emerge from the dens, females are literally pounced upon by dozens of males, forming something biologists delicately describe as a ‘mating ball’. Males jockey for position, trying to be the one to get his sperm to the eggs. Because females can store the sperm before fertilization, it’s likely her young end up being the product of more than one father.

By the end of May, however, the furor dies down. Knocked up and ready to go, both males and females disperse to spend the summer feeding and, in the case of the females, giving birth. The dens and other hibernacula sit empty for the summer, but as the song says, we’ll see them in September.

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9 thoughts on “Snakes on a Plain

  1. This is a really wonderful post, Heather. I had no idea about this extraordinary phenomenon. It’s beautifully written and illustrated as well. And as a big fan of karst it’s great to read about its astonishing qualities in another part of the world. Thanks for this morning’s fascinating tour!

    • Hi Julian,
      I’m glad you found it interesting. I feel pretty priveledged to live as close to the dens as I do. Most Manitobans don’t realize just how amazing their corner of the world is, but I think that’s pretty normal. We always take what’s in our own backyard for granted.

      I’ll have to go and find your posts on karst. Cindy tells me she learned about the formation from you.

      • Hi Heather,

        I have mentioned karst briefly in a couple of posts but I think Cindy is probably referring to a longer essay called ‘Time in the Karst Country’ written after a wonderful set of experiences while bird monitoring on a karst plateau close to where we live that was published in the online journal Terrain.org

        If you’re interested you can find it along with some photos at http://www.terrain.org/place/27/

        Hope you’re well and looking forward to your next insightful post!

        Cheers,
        Julian

  2. Another wonderfully made image to illustrate a fascinating post. I had heard of ‘snake pits’, I think I saw a film once about them emerging en masse, but I wasn’t aware of them exiting in Manitoba. I had somehow associated them with more southern North America. I remember garter snakes from childhood, but I can’t remember where (we moved around a lot) – maybe Ontario, or was it Newfoundland (or maybe Nebraska)? 🙂 People think I’m nuts for walking in the bush were a large predator might eat me, but I was more afraid of the hidden and deadly snakes and spiders in Australia! Am I right in thinking that we don’t have any dangerous snakes in Canada?

    • People usually associate snakes with more southern climates, but I used to see red-sided garter snakes up around Edmonton, when I lived there. They weren’t as plentiful though.

      I have a similar outlook on wildlife as you do. I don’t think twice about wandering around forests filled with bears, wolves and possibly cougars, but when I was in Tasmania, I was very aware of the dangers of venomous snakes.

      We in Canada, aren’t completely without danger. Southern portions of the prairies (Manitoba and Alberta) have prairie rattlesnakes, which do have enough venom to harm a human. There are other venomous snakes (actually garter snakes have venom), but they aren’t potent enough to harm you or I.

      If you ever find yourself in Manitoba in the spring or fall, be sure to check our Narcisse. It’s well worth the drive.

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