Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

November 12, 2007

Hello Mr. Brown

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:03 pm

  Today was a typical brown November day in most respects.  Bouts of spittle rain issued from a featureless steel gray sky and westerly gusts were given voice as they hissed through the stands of pale sienna Switch grass. Miniature clouds of puffy seeds peeled off of the cinnamon shaded cat-tail heads and engaged in short randomly directed flights. The carpet of new fallen leaves presented a patchwork of mocha and nutmeg. Although the scene was representative of the month, the winds were of a mild green September nature.  The temperature hovered in the mid-fifties by mid day. A lone tree cricket found enough confidence in the relative balminess to commence trilling. The moss colored songster fell silent as a gang of Ruby-crowned Kinglets patrolled through the thicket seeking insect food such as he. The tiny birds were olive green and chose to hide their ruby red crowns from me as I watched them.

  I came upon what looked to be a worm making its way across the sidewalk- a brown worm, of course.  Given the rain and mild weather this was not a surprising thing. My reaction turned to delighted surprise when, upon closer inspection, the apparent worm revealed itself to be a tiny Brown Snake. The minuscule reptile recoiled as I approached but posed patiently for a portrait (see here).

  Brown Snakes, also known as DeKay’s Snakes, are very common in our region but rarely seen because of their small size and secretive nature.  This particular individual, though only 8 inches in length, was a young snake but not a baby.  The newborn snakelets are only about three inches long and are born “live” in late summer/early fall (direct from mom rather than incubating in an egg).  Fully mature adults rarely get over a foot in length even when training for the Olympics.  It’s hard to get a sense of their small stature unless you get one in hand -at which point the size resemblance to a worm becomes obvious (look here). True to their common name, they are mostly brown.  This sidewalk snake had a pleasant chestnut hue to it, but most are a coffee-with-a-lot-of-cream color. All display a distinctive pale back stripe, with a border of dark umber spots, and a wonderful pink belly (see here).

  Brown Snakes spend most of their summertime under the leaf litter and only make their presence known during the sepia toned days of autumn.  At this time of year they actively seek out hibernation sites and the search exposes them to a great risk of life and, er… limb (I suppose I should say “hiss and scale” since they have no limbs to risk). October and November are the best months to see this species, but actually “seeing” them is near impossible since they blend into most of their chosen backgrounds.  I need to emphasize the word “most” here. I easily spotted this diminutive serpent when it was highlighted against the open concrete.  My intentions were purely observational but there are a whole host of natural predators out there that would view such an opportunity differently.  Hawks, foxes, herons, and raccoons all eat these cylindrical brown reptiles. Humans pose a great danger to them as well. Like a real life version of “Frogger,” many are flattened when attempting to cross roadways.     

  Only when secure in their hibernation burrows, deep below the frost line, can they recover from the effects of running (I mean –crawling) this gauntlet. Upon emergence in the spring, they have to go through this harrowing experience again. 

  In its leafy low down micro element, however, the Brown is an efficient predator in its own right.  They eat worms and slugs for the most part, but specialize in snails.  There are very few snakes on the planet that have developed the ability to extract snails from their shells, and this is one of them.  Upon grabbing the fleshy part of the mollusk, the snake begins to roll and twist until the escargot is wrenched right out of its home. A combination of a short stout head, a firm set of tiny teeth and a very flexible spine combine to form an efficient extraction killer.

  I have never seen them perform this feat, but found a number of references referring to it.  One of the sources states that “snail extraction in Storeria dekayi involves cervical twisting of 180-270 degrees, which involves some lateral and vertical bending, but also suggests the contribution of verbal torsion.”  This article had the imposing title of “Behavioral and Morphological Adaptations for Snail Extraction in North American Brown Snakes.” The title alone is longer than the snake which it discusses!  Let’s just leave it at that.

  I released my little brown snake into a patch of ochre leaves and it soon vanished from sight as I wished it another happy 6 inches of life.

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks !! very helpful post!

    Comment by Emily — February 28, 2009 @ 9:03 am

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