Big mouth

garter snake swallowing a whole fish

Who needs a knife and fork, or even molars, when you can easily swallow bites bigger than your head? (Photo: Jesse Palmer, Creative Commons license)

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Could there be a holiday more representative of the true nature of American culture than Thanksgiving? Considered the least commercial of our national holidays, yet the true theme of the day is consumption. Family, food, and football are all available in quantities large enough to cause a bit of indigestion. Moreover, the entire event is just a warm up, an appetizer that signals the start of a dietary and retail feeding frenzy.

A turkey is the holiday’s traditional mascot, not to mention the main course, but I’d like to suggest a different and even more appropriate talisman for a day devoted to stuffing one’s face—the garter snake (Thamnophis spp.).

color and pattern variation in garter snakesThought to resemble the fanciful bands that held up men’s and ladies’ hosiery in a pre-elastic era, garter snakes are as American as pumpkin pies and pigskins. The most widely distributed reptile genus in North America, you’ll find them slithering from sea to shining sea across 49 states, including Alaska—the only snake able to make that claim. Remarkable in their ability to adjust to a wide range of habitats, garter snakes live on purple mountain ranges, in amber waves of grain, across the fruited plains, and everywhere in-between.

The genus includes 26 species and dozens of subspecies. Most include the “garter” tag as part of their common name, but the western ribbon snake (Thamnophis proximus) and its subspecies are part of the tribe too. Morphologically diverse—even within a species—the unifying theme is one or more stripes that run the length of the body (with or without spots). Some, like the common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), favor an understated tan or brown background with yellow stripes. Other color combos may include: red-orange, black, and creamy yellow (coast garter snake, Thamnophis elegans terrestris); black with a pale teal green stripe and red spots (red-spotted garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis concinnus); and even a striking electric blue paired with black (Puget Sound garter snake, Thamnophis sirtalis pickeringii).

Garter snakes are not picky eaters, and this characteristic has also helped them to spread out across the continent. These legless wonders will eat just about member of the Animal Kingdom they can catch and devour, including slugs, earthworms, fish, frogs and toads, lizards and other snakes, birds (including their eggs and nestlings), and small mammals, including rodents.

You’ve heard the phrase “His eyes were bigger than his stomach”? Well, that’s never really a problem for an animal whose stomach, along with the skin, muscles, ribs, throat, and mouth, can expand to accommodate up to 20% of its body weight in a single swallow. Imagine the kind of advantage you’d have in an eating contest if you could loosen your jaw, open wide (150° compared to 45° for the average human), and send a whole turkey down the hatch! Chewing? Why bother? Snakes don’t. They don’t have the choppers for it, although some have a few small teeth that curve toward the back of the mouth and help the reptile “walk” the upper and lower jaws over and around their meal. Concerned about how to breath while a roasted 30 pound tom or hen is passing through your gullet? No worries… if you’re a snake your windpipe is located near the front of your mouth and can move out of the way. If you’re not a snake (and I mean that literally—your in-laws’ opinion doesn’t count)… you may want to reconsider using a knife and fork.

Still, when your favorite team is lining up for the opening kickoff on the 55” LCD HDTV with Surround Sound, and Grandma is standing between you and the game with a third helping plate and a look that says responding to her offering with “no thanks, I couldn’t eat another bite” may not kill her, but it will significantly shorten her life—you have to admit, the ability to swallow food whole would sure come in handy.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their photos available for use through a Creative Commons license:  Frank Miles/USFWS (2 common garter snakes); randomtruth (coast garter snake); Jonathan Crowe (red-spotted garter snake); and Dan Dzurisin (Purget Sound garter snake).

Shell game

eastern box turgle

Eastern box turtle shells provide protection from predators, but not the hazards of life in cities and suburbs (Photo: Alan Howell © Star Path Images, used with permission)

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Sometimes you just need to shut out the world for a while, you know?

If you can’t relate, I know the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) certainly can. Whether the threat is carnivores or towers of cardboard boxes and a demanding career, there are times when nothing beats a little self-imposed solitary confinement.

Carrying your own personal isolation chamber on your back means sensory deprivation can be achieved in mere seconds. No need to call ahead for an appointment at the local day spa. Don’t bother dimming the lights, closing the blinds, and turning off your cell phone. Just pull in your extremities and slam your hinged shell shut—a little privacy, if you don’t mind!

Is it any coincidence that box turtles are one of our longest-lived species, with well-documented cases of individuals reaching the half-century mark and beyond? Stress reductions, in the form of a room of one’s own, may well be the key to attaining a ripe old age.

We shouldn’t dismiss the importance of wise food choices either—lots of lean protein, in the form of earthworms, snails, slugs, and insects, as well as fruits and veggies such as berries, grasses, and flowers.  Turtles have another favorite food that may contribute to overall longevity—they’ve been known to consume poisonous fungi, causing anyone who dines on their flesh to sicken, or worse. Of course, someone has to kill and eat said turtle, and suffer the consequences, which may not seem like much of a survival benefit unless you consider it from the standpoint of the population rather than the individual. See, all it takes is one or two bad meals and, ever after, turtles become a much less appealing meal for that particular consumer and his or her community. The technical term is adverse conditioning—that’s a polite way of saying animals (both human and non-human) tend not to keep eating things that make us vomit.

Now, it’s unlikely that turtles have any particular strategy in mind when eating wild mushrooms. Then again… certain “magical” fungi have been credited with providing, among other things, an increased sense of well-being and decreased anxiety levels. Perhaps they are self-medicating with the Terrapene equivalent of Xanax®.

One of six subspecies of the common box turtle (T. carolina), the eastern, like all its kin, has a highly domed carapace (the upper portion of the shell) and a hinged plastron (the lower half of the shell). What sets each subspecies apart is distribution and habitat, as well as certain physical characteristics.  T.c. carolina, found from southern Maine to southern Florida and as far west as central Texas, is known for colorful keeled carpaces that feature diverse combinations of spots, bars, and radiating lines.

Color provides a clue to more than a box turtle’s species. It can also help us determine the gender of that lurching, resolute reptile we stop to help cross the street.  If the eyes (irises) are bright orange or red, you’re holding a male; females have brown or light orange eyes. What if, in response to your good deed, the turtle has gone into hiding, making eye contact a moot point? Simply turn the creature over; females have a flat plastron, males are slightly concave. (Think about it. Birds do it, bees do it…).

eastern box turtles

Hello, goodbye (Photos: Doug Letterman and Bill Lynch, Creative Commons license)

The hinged plastron is what caused taxonomists to create a separate genus for North America’s box-top reptiles, and what allows the eastern and it’s relatives to retreat into a kind of biological fortress.  And for most of their history, this survival strategy worked quite well—against coyotes, raccoons, and skunks, that is.  Sadly, it doesn’t provide the same level of protection from every threat.

Box turtles are still relatively common throughout much of their range, but not even the most tightly closed shell can shield this species from the impacts of habitat loss and other interactions with Homo sapiens. These are slow moving, slow growing creatures with delayed sexual maturity and low reproduction rates, all of which puts them at risk. A female may produce hundreds of eggs during her lifetime, but less than a dozen offspring can be expected to survive to adulthood. It’s hard to even begin to estimate how many turtles are hit attempting to cross roads every year, and there are plenty of other hazard against which withdrawing into your shell is of little use—trains, lawn mowers, tractors, and bulldozers, to name but a few. Then there’s the capture of turtles for the pet trade. In many states, this practice is completely unregulated, with devastating impacts on wild populations.

Even so, there are times when coming out of your shell is the better choice. Especially for humans. Solitary confinement is used as a punishment because, unlike turtles we are social mammals. We need companionship, conversation, to touch and be touched. Hard to get any of those needs met when you retreat to your shell.

Unless, of course, you invite someone to join you there.

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.

Long time no see

male green anole

The male green anole flashes his brightly colored throat to claim territory and attrack females (Photo: Ken Slade, Creative Commons license)

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When I was in Austin about a month ago, I ran into an old acquaintance… kinda-sorta. I was having a glass of wine at the Hyatt Regency’s outdoor bar when, out of the corner of my eye, I recognized someone I haven’t seen since I left Texas over a decade ago. Actually, I found it hard not to notice, since he was doing push-ups against the patio railing, but the other hotel guests seemed oblivious. As he moved closer to my table I turned to face him, thinking, “Typical attention-seeking anole.”

A green anole (Anolis carolinensis), to be exact, although he has a number of aliases including Carolina anole, American anole, and red-throated anole, not to mention tree lion. I’ve also heard people say he’s a green anole changing colorchameleon. Trust me, he’s not. Oh, he can change color alright, within a limited green-to-brown range… mostly when he wants to fade into the background or broadcast to everyone that he’s stressed, cold, or generally displeased. But while he does have roving eyes, they don’t move independently of one another.

When I say “he” I don’t mean it in the gender-neutral pronoun way—I’m certain this particular reptile was a male. Why? Because he would periodically take a break from pumping up to flair the strawberry-hued flap of skin on his neck called a dewlap. It’s the anole equivalent of “hey, baby… can I buy you a drink?” Or throwing up gang signs to claim a corner. A dewlap is dual-purpose.

Or maybe it’s really all one and the same. In the anole world, you’ve got to be a property owner to be a playah. A male’s territory overlaps those of multiple females. Green anoles are polygynous, meaning a guy will wander through his ‘hood flashing throat bling and making social calls. The little women, on the other hand, stay pretty close to the homestead, waiting for their man to come around. It’s basically polygamy, but for any number of irrational reasons, people prefer to use different terminology for analogous human and non-human behavior.

female green anoleWarming temperatures raise lizard libidos, so depending on the local climate, the party starts sometime in April and doesn’t wind down until late August/early September. Courtship is simple and not all that subtle. Once a male’s bobbing head and dewlap have caught a female’s attention, she lets him know she’s in the mood by arching her neck… which he subsequently bites from behind. Understandably, this can cause her to reconsider her level of receptivity, so he has to hold on tight. I guess all that upper-body work has a purpose beyond posing after all.

The encounter lasts a minute or two and then they go their separate ways, at least for a couple of weeks. She lays a clutch of 6–9 eggs that take 5–7 weeks to hatch. Neither parent gets involved in child-rearing. What can you expect? Young anoles grow up fast and are having babies of their own at 8–9 months of age.

Back on the patio. I said hello, asked how he’s been, the usual slightly awkward pleasantries that pass between acquaintances who’ve not seen each other in a long while. As I remember he never was much of a talker, but he seemed particularly distracted that afternoon. A quick glance around and I understood why. I cut my conversation with this lounge lizard short once I realized he looking past me at a couple of slender green ladies who were checking him out.

Typical.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Alex Calderon (color change) and e_monk  (brown female) for making their photos available through a Creative Commons license.

On the half-shell

nine-banded armadillo

The nine-banded armadillo may not look like a typical mammal, but if you look carefully, you can see hair along the chin and between the protective plates (Photo: Rich Anderson, Creative Commons license)

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“Here’s a question for you… turtles and armadillos both have shells, so are they related?”

Whenever people gather for some kind of social event, the subject naturally turns to work. As in, “what do you do for a living?” In my case, what happens next is that the words “wildlife biologist” are out barely of my mouth before questions are spread before me like an appetizer tray.  It’s a pop quiz every time you meet someone new, with no idea what subject the test will cover. Just when I think I’ve heard every possible query, I’m reminded once again that the natural world is far too diverse to ever allow humans to run out of questions, much less find all the answers.

Turns out, this particular gentlemen had just returned from a trip to Texas, so naturally he had ‘dillos on his mind.

If you look at them from the right perspective, turtles and armadillos do have some surface similarities. But turtles, as most people know, are reptiles; armadillos are mammals.  Surprised? If so, you’re not alone. An armadillo just doesn’t fit the mammal profile. Where’s the hair… the teeth… the charisma?

Armadillos do have hair. It’s just that most of it isn’t in a form we recognize. The hard, shell-like covering is actually modified hair, with traditional strands between the jointed plates that allow the animal to curl up in a ball, protecting the vulnerable belly. Armadillo armor is similar to your fingernail, and at birth the shell is soft and pliable (a trait for which I’m sure Mom is grateful!), becoming harder as the young ones mature.  Armadillos have teeth, but like their close relatives, the sloths and anteaters, they are small and peg-like. As for personality… I’ll admit, they may not be as winsome as an otter or as sleek and athletic as a cougar. But I’ve found them to be inquisitive and surprisingly nimble for a creature who lives life on the half-shell.

turtle skeletonA turtle’s shell, on the other hand, is made of bony plates that have fused together and are connected to the ribs and spine. The shell is actually part of the skeleton, so that old Saturday morning cartoon trick, in which the turtle slips out of its shell, is possible only through the magic of animation. Of all the animals on Earth, only turtles and tortoises wear their hips and shoulders inside their ribcage. The shell continues to grow throughout the turtle’s life, and on some species you can actually see growth rings on each of the plates.

Even though they aren’t kin, armadillos and turtles do share one interesting characteristic: both are able to walk underwater along the bottoms of streams, ponds and lakes.

Why walk when you could swim?  Great question, but one that will have to wait until the next party. I’m going to stroll on over to the buffet table and dive into the dip.

Do you have questions about wildlife? Email NDN and the answer may turn up as a future blog post. And don’t forget to “Like” us on Facebook!

© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author.