Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 10, 2009

Les Ile aux Serpentes

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:14 pm

Long ago the Lake Erie Islands were known as “Les Ile aux Serpentes” -a French name meaning “the Snake Islands.” Stories, nurtured since prehistoric times, centered on the abundant snake population of these remote islands. It was reported  by former Indian captive James Smith that the natives held a belief that the island snakes actually turned into raccoons every fall and that they returned into snake form in the spring. This belief was based on the abundance of both species at certain times of year. Another tale told of a lethal “Blow Snake” that haunted these isles. Over time, raccoons were recognized as untransmutable beasts and the islands slowly shed their ominous snaky nature. Although the rest of the 18 “Ile aux Serpentes” have been given non-serpentine names likes Gibraltar, Bass & Kelleys, one of them, a small piece of rock just north of Put-in-Bay, is still called Rattlesnake Island.

The islands are still heavily populated by snakes today. Perhaps the most celebrated residents are the Lake Erie Water Snakes.  This species is a subspecies of the mainland form of Northern Water Snake but they have been isolated from them since glacial times and are starting to take on a different appearance. Typical Lake Erie individuals have a washed out look which de-emphasizes their dark banding pattern. Because their entire population is restricted to the 25 sq. mile area of the islands they are considered a protected species.  “Water Snakes Welcome Here” signs (see here) are posted along the beaches to advise and inform island visitors and residents of this treasured resource. During my autumn vacation to South Bass & Kellys Island I didn’t really expect to encounter any of these unique creatures due to the late season. Fortunately, I was wrong.

Nearly every beach either had evidence of their presence in the form of shed skins (see above & here) or the creatures themselves. On the north shore of South Bass I nearly stepped on a very large individual basking on the sunny rocks. Neither of us were aware of each other until the last moment and each showed mutual surprise.  I shouted out a hearty verse of heavenly praise and he virtually lept into the air, beat a hasty retreat across the pebbles, and dove into the water – swimming a short distance then diving under the waves. At the time, I swore that he was a fully 5 feet long, but later re-considered this upon finding out they don’t get much over 3 1/2 feet long.   Later, I came upon a smaller one sunning on the concrete slabs along Put-in-Bay (see below and here). He quietly slipped back into his retreat before I could approach any closer.

I did find a dead individual washed up on the beach, but it was in near skeletal condition. This one did provide an opportunity to get a closer look, however. The mouth was a treat to behold. It contained no fewer than 80 needle sharp teeth – all of which pointed inward. Augmenting the outer rows of 10 teeth on each side of the mouth, a dual row of  40 teeth ran down the center of the upper palette. In other words, the roof of the mouth contained four rows of teeth amounting to 60 teeth! Water snakes use this armament to procure fish, but will use it upon human intruders if captured. A coat of anti-coagulating saliva on the teeth makes for a bite that will bleed like a puppy when inflicted.

The Ohio State University has been studying these snakes for decades. On one point of the island I came upon one of their “Snake Mats” at the foot of a cliff next to Bass Island State Park (see below). These prominently marked structures – really nothing more than flexible black floor mats -were laid out at regular intervals to serve as gathering places for Lake Erie Water Snakes. The spots are visited on a regular basis to capture and mark snakes for study. I will admit to looking under this particular mat, in spite of the clear directions to the contrary (although you will note that the partially obscured letters say “touch” ). I only looked a little bit, by the way. Since my daughter is currently attending Ohio State, I felt slightly entitled.

University research has revealed that the snakes are currently enjoying a population surge due to a surprising reason. Apparently, the introduction of the infamous Round Goby has served as a heavenly gift to this species. They eat them like candy and these alien fish make up nearly 90% of their diet in some locations.  Population estimates of 141 adult Lake Erie Water snakes per km. of shoreline have been proposed along with a total population of 10,000 individuals.

For now, the Erie islands will retain their position as the Serpent Islands.


  1. Fascinating! We have an isolated rattlesnake population here in the Adirondacks, too – Tongue Mt. near Lake George. Rattler’s used to be more populous, but bounties and unreasonable fears took care of that. Despite protection today, many a serpentine reptile has been treated to the sharp edge of a shovel or worse.

    Comment by Ellen — October 13, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

  2. How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your web site is great, as well as the content! I am not sure where you are getting your information, but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning more or understanding more.

    Comment by Alexandria Grundman — January 14, 2012 @ 3:24 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress