The BioGeek Memoirs: Garter Snake

Last summer, while walking through the garage on my way to the front, I came across a little garter snake moving across the concrete floor towards me. “Oh, no you don’t!” I told him. “Back out the door you go!”

That little guy flipped right around and speedily snaked his way right back out the way he came. “Out, out…” I told him as I continued to herd him until he was safely back out front.

Photo Credit: Inklein, downloaded from Creative Commons

I’ve had many, many encounters with garter snakes over the years. They are common in the yard where they sun themselves in the mornings. They will even climb up into shrubs as they try to catch those early morning rays: during an early morning stop at a creek getting water to use in a biology lab I accidently chose a path through a group of draped and sunning garter snakes. The students through it was just hysterical when I arrived in class that morning somewhat rumpled and covered in burrs after I had leapt around like a crazy person trying to avoid the snakes. I was picking burrs out of my fleece vest all day…

I live on the edge of the Great Plains region of the United States; fields and residential areas broken by open spaces with small waterways moving through them. These snakes are relatively small and hang out on the land and in the water catching whatever they can to eat. What do they eat? Whatever they can catch, evidently! I spent some time online trying to nail this down as I do wonder what that little snake in my yard is going to munch on (not my baby bunny… no!) and discovered that they eat earthworms, slugs (yay!), small rodents (another yay!), fish, and other small animals in the riparian area where they live.

My little snake appeared in the garage late in the summer. I seem to see a lot of them at that time of year; the babies are born alive (the mother holds onto the eggs internally until it is time for the baby snakes to emerge) and then there are little snakes (pencil thin and less than a foot long) whipping along across the sidewalk and through the lawn. These baby snakes are prime targets for the adventurous cat looking for the best cat toy ever as they frantically race back and forth through the garden and hiding along the landscaping timber.

There were few things that my cat Morgan loved more than a great garter snake chase!

I, of course, was more worried about the snake. Okay, I’m also not a fan of the cats dragging the snake around and maybe even into the house. Once I had a snake loose in an upstairs bedroom; it had been brought in by my beautiful Siamese cat. Luckily the cat’s behavior helped me locate it (it had slithered up the front of a dresser and was hiding along the edge of one of the drawers with the cat’s nose right on it…) and it was captured and returned to a safe cat-free area outdoors.

I used to have a garter snake in my 6th grade science classroom. It had a large screen-covered aquarium with a big dish of water, branches to climb on, and plants and bark to hide in on the bottom. It took me a while to figure out what to feed it… crickets just sat on its back and rode it around; the snake looked kind of sad to have its cage invaded by insects. The students and I dropped in earthworms. Nope. Lunchmeat was completely ignored. I refused to try baby mice. Finally, I bought it some feeder goldfish and dumped then into the water dish. Bingo! Obviously, this snake was pretty aquatic in its orientation, and it happily chased down and snacked on four little feeder goldfish once a month. Who knew they eat fish? Obviously, they do!

That little snake was a happy camper in its inner-city classroom for a couple years. It had a nice heat lamp that it basked under in the mornings, draped across the wooden branches in its cage. On hot afternoons it spent its time in the water dish staying cool. Overnight it burrowed down into the wood chips in the bottom of its cage. Since snakes can’t regulate their own internal temperatures like we do it moved around in its environment to keep its internal temperature in a comfortable range.

One day the cage was empty: my snake had pushed open the screen cover and escaped. Oops. Umm… of course the students noticed that he was gone. Two days later my principal crept in during class and told me that my snake was sunning itself on a windowsill in a classroom upstairs. Yep. There he was, looking exceeding pleased with himself. The students had recognized him right away. I had to buy that teacher a Starbucks gift card…

When I left that job the snake was released back into the same riparian area where he had been caught two years earlier. Hope you had a happy life, little guy! I wonder what he told the other snakes about his years in a 6th grade classroom where he learned all about the life cycle of stars, the space shuttle, ecology, weather, and some simple chemistry?

He was a well-educated snake!

P.S. My neighbors don’t enjoy the garter snakes as much as I do, but I view them as an essential part of the local backyard ecosystem. My neighbors struggle with mice that invade their garages and homes each fall, and something keeps munching on their flowers. Somehow, I don’t have the same problems. Go get those slugs, garter snakes!!

You can learn more about the snakes of Colorado here.

Introducing the BioGeek Memoirs

How many magical moments can one person have with another species? Only a few, right?

I had a baby Cottontail rabbit in my yard all summer. How magical is that?

I mean, there was that time you fed a cute chipmunk some chips at a rest stop, or the day you encountered an owl in the limbs of a tree right over your head. The squirrels that frolicked through the branches and around the trunk of that huge maple as you walked out of your doctor’s office after getting some good news. The squad of squid that left you trapped on an offshore rock in La Jolla when they positioned themselves between you and the beach, flashing rainbow color changes in unison. The time when a whole herd of deer ghosted out from the early morning mist and silently moved past the deck of your rental cabin while you were out there drinking coffee, wrapped in a blanket, waiting for your students to wake up. The day a fox trotted down the sidewalk in front of you while you were loading the car for work and vanished into the falling snow, leaving only its footprints behind. The flight of geese that swirled around your car and landed, feet extended and wings furiously back-flapping, unexpectantly dropping from the sky while you slammed on your brakes, stunned by the joy of the moment. The day a huge beaver swam across the pond while you and your children silently watched from the bank in the shadow of some shrubs, amazed by the size.

All that stuff didn’t happen to you?

Oh, yeah. Those are my memories.

A Painted Lady butterfly on a butterfly bush in my garden.

I have had a lifelong love affair with nature. I started young with bug collections and jars full of creatures that I dug up from the sands during family beach outings. As I got older I branched out and collected every pet my mother would let me keep and looked at things from the garden with my little Christmas microscope. I learned about cells, genes and DNA in college, and then became a biomedical researcher in an immunology lab. I moved on after a few years to become a biology teacher and took every opportunity that came my way to continue my interactions with wildlife and nature. Workshops in the mountains, trips to the desert, classes with wildlife specialists, and days in museum workshops. It has all been great; a life in biology, rich with meaning and wonderment.

I loved these coneflowers in my backyard so much I use this photo for my phone screen.

But the best, the very best, have been the magical, serendipitous moments that have come to me on my own, interlaced with memories and fraught with personal meaning.

Welcome to The BioGeek Memoirs.  

Hopefully I will be posting every Friday.

I have a lot of memories.