Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pinched, Bitten, and Smeared

"I love fools' experiments. I am always making them." -Charles Darwin
"Uh, Dad, I thought you said they wouldn't bite?" "Ya, they try once in a while, but it doesn't amount to much." That was my reply to my daughter's question about whether the Northern Ring-necked Snake she was holding would bite. I was a few yards away turning stones over in Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown, Connecticut, looking for more snakes. I had found a Ring-necked Snake, and my daughter Janet and her friend Matt had been holding it and photographing it while I looked for more. "Well this one is doing a pretty good job of biting!" was her reply to my assurance not to worry. I stood up and turned around to see. Sure enough, that little so-and-so was doing his species proud.

Ring-necked Snake biting Janet's Hand
"Well don't worry about it. It won't even leave a mark." This was placating I know. Actually it did leave a mark, and it bit Matt as well. Son of a gun. It didn't bite me, and I caught it. You'd think justice would have been served and it would have taken revenge on the guy who caught it. Oh well, life is seldom fair.

Northern Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii)
Matt holds a Ring-necked Snake.
It was a rainy Monday in August. Matt, Janet and I, were out looking for snakes and whatever else we could turn up. Matt loves snakes. And frogs. And Salamanders. And Lizards. Just to mention a few critters. Well so do I. Janet is game for almost anything. She may not get the thrill Matt and I get from finding snakes but she enjoys the woods and whatever it has to offer. Today we were getting wet and muddy while we explored, and we were getting smellier by the snake. Many snakes excrete a nasty smelling musk which they smear on an attacker, or a 12 year old, or a 51 year old who thinks he's 12. They also smear other unpleasant things on you as well, use your imagination, you'll get there. I know. Pretty disgusting. If you were picked up by a creature hundreds of times your size, you would do something similar. I know I would.

Why they are called Ring-necked Snake is pretty apparent.

This is a beautiful animal, the Northern Ring-necked Snake. Growing to only about 14 inches on average, the record length is about double that, 28 inches. They are usually found under rocks, logs, or leaf litter. It is easy to see why they are so named, a beautiful cream colored ring crosses the snake's neck dorsally. The belly is a rich yellow with a hint of orange. They usually don't bite people. Usually. These gorgeous little snakes eat salamanders, small frogs, other snakes, or even earthworms. Today both Janet and Matt would leave this snake with little bite marks on their hands. I'm pretty sure they felt they were little badges of courage actually. I was not bitten, did I mention that?

Matt with Garter Snake and Janet with Ring-necked Snake. Okay the Ring-necked is still attached by the mouth to Janet's hand. So it is sort of holding her actually.
My turning over rocks soon resulted in finding a small Eastern Garter Snake. This is certainly the most familiar snake to people in the northeast. They are the snake everyone finds in their yard at some point. I'm being judgmental here but I don't find them as attractive as the Ring-necked Snake. Still they are a snake, and therefore they are beautiful to me, and Matt. Janet was interested but not as impressed admittedly. Garter Snakes don't really bite either. They certainly can put on an impressively aggressive defensive act however. When they do bite, which happens sometimes admittedly, they can hang on tenaciously, like that Ring-necked Snake that was still attached to Janet's hand. I realized my credibility was running a bit low on this point, but Matt did not hesitate to take the snake from me.

Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)
Eastern Garter Snakes are very common in many habitats. They grow to about two feet but have been found as long as 49 inches. The ones we found in Pachaug were small. They eat almost anything smaller than themselves but prefer mostly aquatic stuff, salamanders (I know! Salamanders just have it tough out there), frogs, and small fish. The second Garter Snake I found was about to shed its skin. When a snake sheds its skin it also sheds the specially adapted scales that cover its eyes. These scales turn a milky blue as the snake approaches shedding, or molting. If you find a snakeskin, look at the head, you'll see these eye scales are present on the shed snakeskin rather than holes where the eyes are. The photo below clearly shows these milky eye scales on this soon to shed snake.

The eye scale turns a milky blue prior to the snake shedding its skin.
The rain had pretty much stopped by now. Matt, Janet, and I decided to move on and explore other spots in the forest. We stopped at a forest stream with a large pool behind a man made dike. We poked around to see what we could find. One of the first things we turned up was a Crayfish. I don't know a great deal about Crayfish I must admit. There are about 350 to 400 species in the United States. Many are endangered due to habitat loss or degradation. They are also preyed upon by many species such as otters, raccoons, turtles, fishes, Rails, Herons, and of course, man. I scooped this one up using my bug net. The kids had to have the little guy pinch a stick (see the photo), but of course I had to have it pinch me. It grabbed my offered finger and hung on with amazing strength. I did want to have the kids see it didn't really hurt. I didn't, really. However, I think my "It won't... " credibility was still weak with the kids at that point.

Crayfish with stick supplied by Matt and Janet
Matt and Janet examine a Bull Frog
Matt quickly spotted something else in the water. He asked me what it was and I told him it was a dragonfly larva. I reached in and scooped it into my hand to show them. Specifically, it was a larva of the family Aeshnidae, or the Darners. These are the largest and fastest of the dragonflies in the northeast. The name "Darner" comes from the erroneous beliefs of people based on the long abdomen of the dragonfly and the way it lays eggs by pushing them into aquatic vegetation or rotten logs. Many misconceptions exist about these wonderful insects. They do NOT sting. They do NOT sew your mouth or eyes shut (for goodness sake!) They do NOT land on you and then bite. Okay they do bite if you hold one just right so it can get a bit of your finger right up against its mouth parts, but the bite does not hurt. I have let the largest of these bite me, the Swamp Darner, and while impressive in strength for such a light weight, it didn't hurt. The larvae of dragonflys are impressive little aquatic predators with large eyes and large mouth parts. This family's larvae stalk their underwater prey, using their large eyes and mouth parts, while many other dragonfly species larvae lie in camouflaged wait to ambush prey. When a dragonfly is ready to emerge and begin its flying stage, the larva will crawl out of the water on a rock or log and the adult will break out slowly, much like a butterfly. The dried larval skins left behind, or exuviae, can be found near the water's surface on vegetation, logs, rocks, or concrete culverts.

Aeshidae, or "Darner" Dragonfly Larva
Adult Aeshnidae. This is a female Lance-tipped Darner. It is possible that the above Larva is that of a Fawn Darner however, based on habitat and the presence of adult Fawn Darners egg-laying nearby.
The day was getting on, and Matt had to be back in time for a birthday party for his mom and sister. While we had time, I wanted to look for more snakes before Matt needed to be home, so we moved on. We next tried a couple of spots looking for Eastern Ribbon Snakes or Northern Water Snakes. I had seen an Eastern Ribbon Snake at one nearby location a couple days before, but it had eluded my capture. We looked today to no avail, but we did manage to find Northern Water Snakes.

Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon)
Northern Water Snakes are frequently called "Water Moccasins" or Copperheads, by the uninformed, and are then pointlessly slaughtered. They are not Water Moccasins or Cottonmouths. They are non-venomous. They do have brilliantly white mouth linings and are vigorous biters in their own defense, but only in their own defense. This is a very common snake in Connecticut and they reach between 2 and 4 feet in length when fully grown. They will bite if handled without caution, and their mouths have a bacterial component that can cause an infection in the bite wound. This may be why the Greek name sipedon, or "infectious," has been used for this species. Northern Water Snakes will also use a convincing bluff to defend themselves. They will flatten their heads to approximate the triangular shape that is a feature of most of the venomous North American snakes. And let me tell you, when these snakes smear musk, or "whatever" on you, it really stinks! Just ask Matt and Janet. Using my bug net to reach out in the water, I snagged this little beauty.

Me holding the Northern Water Snake I caught using a bug net
Matt quickly took the snake from me after I warned that it would try and bite him if he wasn't careful. I told him his mom, Karin, would be less than happy with me if I let a Water Snake nail him! Matt is a brave young man and took the snake with no qualms. After a few pics, I put the snake back on the ground and it shot off back to the water, happy to be done with me. It had repeatedly struck at my camera while I photographed it, showing its white mouth lining. Northern Water Snakes prey mainly on frogs of the genus rana, such as Green Frogs. This is a subtly beautiful snake on its dorsal side, and a dramatically beautiful snake ventrally. The belly is patterned in reddish half moons or triangles.

Northern Water Snake
Dorsal view. Northern Water Snakes can be varied in color dorsally, this one is rather darkish. Take a good look, this is NOT a Cottonmouth or Copperhead! It is non-venomous but it is a "biter."
Trying to make you think it is venomous, a Northern Water Snake flattens its head. This is a defensive bluff however.
The beauty of the Northern Water Snake's belly
Having been pinched (me), bitten (Matt and Janet), and smeared (all of us), we called it a day. Dirty, wet, and smelly, we all headed off for a bite of our own. It had been a fun day despite the rainy start. The kids and I had found some pretty cool critters during our time in the forest. I love being able to share with children my love of the natural world, and Matt and Janet had clearly enjoyed themselves. I look forward to the next time I can be pinched, or bitten, or smeared! You should give it a shot too, it won't hurt. Well not too badly at least... it is worth it... really!

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