Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 25, 2008

Fight’n Words

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:35 pm

A Northern Water Snake was the last creature I expected to see out on a frigid late October day. Sunning itself on the rocks of Fighting Island in the Detroit River, however, was a dusty dark specimen of the sort (see above).  The day was approaching the noon hour and the sun’s comforting rays were about as comfortable as they would ever get. The creature was soaking up some of that radient comfort. These snakes are dubbed as “Northerns” for good reason because they are found throughout the north country region – including the Upper Peninsula and Isle Royale. But, the time is fast approaching for even the hardiest of reptiles to seek winter shelter.

  This individual was understandibly slow to react. It only mustered up a glacial creep toward the shore as it was approached.  Normally, water snakes are not so willing to yield up their piece of ground.  They are, in fact, feisty beyond the measure of most snakes. A mid-summer approach to this guy would have potentially produced a dramatic bit of hissing, head-flattening, striking, and – if the opportunity presented itself – biting.

  Even though they are often mistaken by the ignorant as Water Moccasins or Cottonmouths, Water Snakes are not venomous. Thier venomous act is meant to intimidate. Sometimes the thing is carried off too well and the performer is whacked to pieces by the audience.  Truth is, they have a lot of tiny sharp teeth and can pack a heavy bite.  This is a necessity for catching frogs, fish, and tadpoles that make up their diet. Their salivia contains an anti-coagulant so their bite marks will bleed like crazy when a human is the recipient of the blow.  Take a look at the Minnesota site and scroll down to the fourth picture and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Look at the bloody hands of the fellow holding up the snake for the picture.  I think you’ll agree that the streaming blood definately takes away from the subject.

  Not all water snakes are irritable.  Some individuals are downright puppy-like. This behaviour variability extends to their general appearance as well.  No two Northern Water Snakes look alike.

  The Fighting Island individual was large and dark.  Older snakes tend to be darker than younger ones.  Take a close look at his eyes (see here) and you’ll see that they are milky white.  This is a sign that the snake is getting ready to shed its skin – which explains his worn out dusty appearance. Underneath that old skin is a clean dark gray animal.

  As a species, these snakes range from a light ashy gray to nearly black. The only common element among them is the presence of dark bands from head to tail. I am fortunate enough to be in possession of one of those puppy-like individuals who also happens to be one of the prettiest examples of his kind that I have ever seen.  Take a peek here, here, and here to see just how spectacular a Northern Water Snake can be.  Note the “keeled scales” (having a ridge down the center of each scale) and the wonderfully checkered belly.  Also, note that there is no blood on my hands!

  I left the Fighting Island snake to finish his solar therapy. When his time comes he will enter deep into one of the rock crevasses and hibernate. Technically, herpetologists would remind us that he will actually enter into “estivation.”  This is a special term for cold-blooded critters which means the same as hibernation but with a twist. But, let’s not haggle and turn these into fight’n words. One does not quibble when on Fighting Island.

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