Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sneaky Snake Mating Melee!

It’s in the seventies today, and although it’s plenty windy, it’s feeling a lot like spring. Our daffodils are blooming profusely, and the forsythia’s starting to flower, too.

And, of course, another sign of spring in our yard is the emergence of hibernating garter snakes! (For the record, Thamnophis sirtalis.) Thursday (March 1) was a banner day for us in this respect, since we saw, for the first time, with our own eyes, a garter snake “mating ball.”

We’d read about it but, well, words don’t do it justice!

But here’s a picture Sue took. They were right outside our front steps, in a sunny spot on our front walk, in early afternoon.

The phrase “mating ball” doesn’t describe what we saw very well. I’d call it a “writhing snarl of snakes” or a “serpent tangle” or something. I’m pretty sure there were about a dozen in this group. We watched as two snakes arrived and joined the fray.

They looked like they were having fun!

There’s not much reason for me to tell you what you can find online, but for what it’s worth, here are some selections from the “garter snake” entry in Wikipedia.


Garter snakes have complex systems of pheromonal communication. They can find other snakes by following their pheromone-scented trails. Male and female skin pheromones are so different as to be immediately distinguishable. However, sometimes male garter snakes produce both male and female pheromones. During mating season, this fact fools other males into attempting to mate with these "she-males". This causes the transfer of heat to them in kleptothermy which is an advantage immediately after hibernation so allowing them to be more active. She-males have been shown to garner more copulations than normal males in the mating balls that form at the den when females emerge into the mating melee.


Garter snakes go into brumation before they mate. They stop eating for about two weeks beforehand to clear their stomach of any food that would rot there otherwise. Garter snakes begin mating as soon as they emerge from brumation. During mating season, the males mate with several females. In chillier parts of their range, male common garter snakes awaken from brumation first, giving themselves enough time to prepare to mate with females when they finally appear. Males come out of their dens and, as soon as the females begin coming out, surround them. Female garter snakes produce a sex-specific pheromone that attracts male snakes in droves, sometimes leading to intense male-male competition and the formation of mating balls of up to 25 males per female. After copulation, a female leaves the den/mating area to find food and a place to give birth. Female garter snakes are able to store the male's sperm for years before fertilization. The young are incubated in the lower abdomen, at about the midpoint of the length of the mother's body. Garter snakes are ovoviviparous, meaning they give birth to live young. However, this is different than being truly viviparous, which is seen in mammals. Gestation is two to three months in most species. As few as 3 or as many as 80 snakes are born in a single litter. The young are independent upon birth. On record, the greatest number of garter snakes to be born in a single litter is 98.


Osage Bluff Quilter said...

Holy crap, I thought for sure it was a picture from google, until I read. Poor Sue, I bet she was shaking in her boots. I know I would have. I hate snakes!!
If I ever come to visit you, I will be carrying my shovel or a shot gun!!!

Patricia Lichen said...

Ooh, love this! I also have heard of these--but never seen one. Maybe this spring will be the lucky one for me too. Thanks for posting the photo.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Now, now, Patti, try to let your more rugged, self-sufficient, "I-lives-in-the-country" self overcome your squeamish-citified fear. Them garter snakes is good for yer garden, cuz they eats the critters what eats yer vittles! Seriously, the absolute worst thing a garter snake can do to you is smear stinky stuff on your hands, and that's only if you catch one. And if nothing else fails, try to imagine you're on a Wild Kingdom episode! (I cherish our garter snakes!)

Peace and love,


Julianna Schroeder said...

Patricia, yes! I had read about these mating tangles a while back, and as soon as I'd read it, I thought to myself: "Now THAT is something I'd like to see!!"

Turns out this is something that happens pretty much the first thing after the female snakes slither out of the ground in early spring.

Fortunately for Sue and me, some of our garter snakes have taken to hiding in a crack between our front steps and our front walkway. All we have to do to see them is slide our "welcome mat" away from where it's covering the crack, and voila! The little snakes are there, looking back at us! It's a lot like having pet snakes, only we don't have to feed them and clean their cages!

Good luck on seeing these in the future. Maybe it's not too late for you to see this spectacle--depending on where in the country you are, or variances of microclimate, your garter snakes might not have emerged yet.