Sunday, March 28, 2010

Games Snakes Play

Holy Snakes!!  I spotted them first in the garage and then in the backyard. Finding them basking on a pile of firewood in the garage, I told them, "you must go". Just missing stepping on one in the backyard, I told it, "you must go NOW!".
Snakes, whether in the backyard or in garage, make me nervous.
One after another I caught them, put them individually in a jar, and released them in the fields by the trail where I often biked. (In the third such episode, a snake escaped from the jar and hid in my car. I spent two terrible days looking for it and did not then dare to drive the car until I had recaptured it. )
These snakes were garter snakes,  mildly poisonous and largely harmless, a fact I wasn't aware of when I first saw them. Coming from India where we often had Cobras - one of the most venomous snakes - in our garden, I have been wont to keep my distance from snakes in general. It was only after I had photographed the snakes in my garage, looked up the pictures on the internet, and learned about their harmless nature that I ventured to catch them. Reading about garter snakes, I also learned an interesting fact about their mating ritual.
During the mating season when snakes come out of brumation, female snakes secrete pheromones that attract the male snakes. Interestingly, some male garter snakes too have the ability to secrete these female pheromones. Pretending to be female-snakes, these she-males lure other male snakes away from the den where the female snake hibernates. And having led the other snakes away from the den, these she-males then give them the slip and retreat to the den to mate with the female snake. Their ploy, though not always successful, does give them a marginal advantage to mate and pass on their genes.
The male snake - whether a she-male or a regular male - upon copulation with the female snake, leaves a gelatinous 'male-plug' in the female that will not let another male snake subsequently mate with the female snake. This plug stays inside the female plug for a couple of days after which it dissolves and the female snake is ready to mate again.
Female snakes are not passive partners; they too possess a gift that gives them the last say in procreating. After their refractory period lasting a couple of days when the male plug of their former mate dissolves, these female snakes can mate with another male-snake. With the sperm of these two mates in their bodies, the female snakes can choose which mate's sperm to retain and which one's to reject.
Ah! The games snakes play.

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