Nature Discovery with Renée! This Week’s Clue…Can You Say Ovoviviparous?

Time for an adventure this week with Librarian Renée! Today’s Nature Discovery blog will feature an amazing animal that lives in our neighborhood!

Whether it’s biking, hiking, or running, I love visiting our local trails. I’m on them most days! I enjoy the fresh air, watching the changing seasons, and all the wildlife. Seeing critters when I’m out and about always brings me a moment of joy, even if they also bring me a moment of heart pumping fear!

Can you guess what I am?

  • You have 33 vertebrae, I can have up to 600!
  • Believe it or not, I have the same organs as you!
  • Some of us lay eggs and some of us have life births.
  • I am ectothermic.
  • I hear with my jaw and smell with my tongue!

If you guessed SSSSSSSSSNAKE, you are correct!

Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi)

If you have been out on the local trails lately you have probably seen a snake or two. Snakes are ectothermic, meaning they rely on external sources to regulate their body temperature. During the winter they have to find a warm spot underground, under rocks, or in the burrow of another animal to stay warm. Their winter inactivity is called brumation, and now is the time in which they emerge.

Snakes live just about everywhere; tall grasses, prairies, mountains, backyards, near water, under rocks, under decks, ect. In Colorado there are 25 different species of snakes, 12 of which live in Boulder County. The snakes that are most often seen in our area are, the Yellow Bellied Racer, The Garter, The Bullsnake, the Smooth Green Snake, the Milk Snake, and the Prairie RattleSnake.

Clockwise from top right: western yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor mormon),garter snake (many varieties),garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), milk snakes (lampropeltis triangulum)

Along with adults, you will be seeing baby snakes too! Snakes either lay eggs that will then hatch outside the mother, or they can have live births. Snakes that have live births are called ovoviviparous. Of the most common snakes in our area, two are ovoviviparous, the Garter Snake and the Prairie Rattlesnake.

Here are just some of the amazing facts about all snakes:

Humans have 33 interlocking bones that make up our spinal column, called vertebrae. Snakes can have up to 600, most of which have ribs attached! Unlike humans, the ribs in snakes are not connected in front with a breast bone. This makes the snake very flexible and with the help of scales, enables that snake to move.

Snakes also have all the same internal organs we have, but are rearranged to fit in their long, slender bodies. Instead of two full-sized lungs, they have one that stretches the length of their bodies and one that is underdeveloped. They do not have external ears, but rather use their jaw bones and other bones in their heads to pick up vibration; and, instead of using their noses to smell, they use their tongues! When they flick their tongues they are picking up sent chemicals that they then bring back to special sensory cells called the Jacobson’s Organ.

All snakes are carnivores, meaning they are meat eaters, and all snakes eat their food whole. Take another look at the above picture of the snake skeleton. Notice how its jaw is not attached in front like ours? Snakes have an extra bone called a quadrate bone, that helps them to expand their jaw to accommodate eating whole animals.

Some snakes use constriction, a method of squeezing to shut off blood flow, to kill their prey. Some snakes are venomous, which means they produce a toxin that they inject with specialized fangs (not to be confused with poisonous, which refers to something that is ingested or eaten). Venom is used to immobilize, kill, or aid in digesting their prey. It can also be used for defense. In Colorado, we have only one venomous snake, the Prairie Rattlesnake.

Prairie RattleSnake (crotalus viridis)

When we find a large snake on the path or in our yard, it’s not always easy to distinguish dangerous from not dangerous, especially between the Bull snake (not venomous) from the Prairie Rattlesnake (venomous). These two snakes share some visual similarities, they can both get quite large and they are similarly camouflaged. Some ways you can distinguish between the two; first, only the rattlesnake has rattles, but the bull snake is known for mimicking this behavior and will coil and shake its tail if threatened. Second, they also have different-shaped heads; rattlesnake heads are triangular whereas the bull snake’s is more narrow–but I wouldn’t recommend getting close enough to verify the shape. A rattlesnake can strike from any position and can cover a distance of about half its body length.

They also have different behaviors. While they both help to keep the rodent population down, they hunt in different manners. The bull snake is a constrictor, so it is more likely to be on the hunt, looking for food. More than likely the snake moving through your yard or across the path is a bull snake. Since the rattlesnake is venomous, it uses the strategy of hide, wait, and strike. Rattlesnakes are more often found hiding under things like rocks, dead trees, buckets, and in the grass. They come out to warm up.

Coming across a rattlesnake can be, well, rattling. When on the trails, especially in the foothills, a walking stick is a handy tool. First, remember that snakes hear vibrations. The stomping of feet or the pounding of a walking stick give a snake warning of your approach. You do not want to be aggressive around a rattlesnake: remember, it can use its venom for defense. Rather, letting the snake know you are approaching is the best strategy. If you do come across a rattlesnake on a path that isn’t moving (it might be warming up and not able to move), go back the way you came, do not try to move it or walk around it! Remember, snakes live just about everywhere, so be mindful and stay on trail. Watching out for your pets in tall grass or keeping them out of prairie dog colonies is a good idea too!

Few animals strike fear in the hearts of trail goers as much as snakes. We are hardwired to fear these animals (check out Infants React with increased Arousal to Spiders and Snakes). For good reason, some snakes can be dangerous. In Colorado, most of the snakes are harmless, but non the less startling. For the record, I love snakes for the wonderful, amazing creatures they are, but I am also a little intimidated by them. I have been known to hold them on occasion (mostly pets!) but I like to appreciate them from a distance. As we all should. They are wild animals and deserve our respect!

Until next week, happy exploring!

-Renée

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