Flat Horn Lake
When picked up, garter snakes release musk from a gland near the base of the tail that has a strong odor meant to discourage predators from further aggression. They twist and turn trying to rub the musk onto the attacker. Afterwards, the odor lingers as a reminder of the encounter.
Garter snakes hibernate during the winter in large colonies in rotting tree stumps, chipmunk and woodchuck burrows, deserted ant mounds, and building foundations. They emerge from their dens in April and take advantage of their high density to mate before dispersing for the summer. Some mating may occur in the fall when the garter snakes regroup as females are able to store living sperm through the winter and use it to fertilize eggs in the spring.
Herpetologists (biologists specializing in the study of reptiles and amphibians) discovered that they can predict the color pattern of a snake if they have knowledge of how it escapes predators, how it feeds, where it breeds, and when it is active. They found that snakes that live in open areas like meadows, that are active during the day, forage widely for food, try to escape when threatened, and have little or no special means of defending themselves or threatening their attackers are likely to have a striped pattern.
The color pattern and behavior of snakes may be related because of the optical illusion of moving and fixed patterns. Stripes don’t offer points on the snake’s body for predators to fix their sight on, making it difficult for them to detect motion or gauge speed. Garter snakes, and other striped snakes, crawl away in a straight line when approached by predators who may not be aware the snakes are fleeing until they are gone.
Spots, on the other hand, are a disadvantage for moving snakes, but not for stationary ones. The broken pattern of spotted or blotchy snakes disrupts the outline of their bodies, making them more difficult to detect as long as they are lying still. However, when moving, their spots make them easier for predators to see and follow. To counter this disadvantage, spotted snakes are more likely to reverse direction during their escape and freeze. It’s possible that the color pattern of snakes is genetically linked with their behavior.
Eastern Garter Snakes aren’t a danger to hikers. They are not poisonous and do not show aggressive behavior when approached unless cornered and have little choice but to try and defend themselves. They will usually allow you to get close to them on the trail if you approach cautiously. I have walked past garter snakes without scaring them away. If you see a garter snake on the trail, look closely at its color pattern. Notice how it behaves if it crawls off the trail. See if you can follow it with your eyes.
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