Wild Colorado: Snakes – the solar-powered creature
Summit Daily News
Boulder County authorities warned residents this week to be on the lookout for snakes following an increase in the number of reported confrontations.
Sheriff’s Office animal control officer Terri Snyder said unusually wet weather is driving snakes from their burrows, while hot weather is luring them to sun themselves on rocks – to the point that the Lake Valley area has been nicknamed “snake valley” by local officers, according to the Associated Press. Most of the calls have involved non-venomous bull snakes, which are often mistaken for venomous rattlesnakes because they coil up and shake their tales. The masquerade works well in scaring off predators except humans, who misinterpret the signal and kill the snakes.
It’s nothing Summit County folks have to worry about, though.
Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife district manager Shannon Schwab said she remembers only two snake calls in her nine years in the area. Most of her personal encounters have been with the mountain garter snake, a harmless snake that “doesn’t grow very big and kind of goes unnoticed,” Schwab said. They’re mostly found in pond and riparian areas, or basking in the sun on the rocks of lower elevations in places like Cataract Lake.
“With our climate, we don’t get many (snakes) in high numbers,” she said, a scenario for which she’s grateful. As ectothermic animals, they tend to avoid temperature extremes – such as the cold in the High Country – and prefer to hunt in mild conditions.
They like the sun, making them somewhat “solar powered,” because it brings up their body temperature. A snake that’s too cool is sluggish and can’t digest its food well – which is why Colorado snakes hibernate to survive winter.
“They’re very, very good for the ecosystem, but they kind of give you a jolt when you see them. Anything that moves without legs is (startling),” she said.
Snakes tug upon the threads of other life forms and natural processes, Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife information states. In turn, they’re tugged upon. Snakes and their eggs are food for eagles, hawks, skunks and other animals. And snakes eat mice and rodents, which benefits humans, as well as frogs, other snakes, fish and snails.
They move by relaxing and flexing strong muscles surrounding their 100 to 400 vertebrae and ribs. Rough belly scales allow them to keep their grip and push off surfaces.
Snake ancestors date back to the Triassic period, approximately 190 million years ago, the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife states.
Since humans came around, reactions have varied from praising them as a symbol of fertility to damning them as servants of the dark world.
There are roughly 28 species of snakes in Colorado, the three poisonous ones being the prairie rattlesnake, midget faded rattlesnake and the massasauga. The rattlesnake lives in most habitats throughout the state, but the massasauga is limited to southeastern grasslands. All are pit vipers with rattles.
“Most snakes are about as threatening to humans as the average chipmunk,” say officials from the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife.
The creatures mostly prefer cool, damp shelters – sometimes taking residence under and inside buildings. Such behavior is mostly noticed in the fall when snakes seek spots to hibernate, but rain and sun also draw them into the public arena.
Like most reptiles, snakes lay eggs, with the exception of the rattlesnake. It gives birth in the fall to half a dozen to a dozen live young, each 10 inches or more in length. They use their forked tongues and heat-sensitive facial pits to determine what exists in their environment and to acquire prey, according to the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Snakes have varying colors and patterns.
“Their bodies are lithe and muscular, the skin scaly and dry,” the information states. “Snakes can do lots of funky things – shed their skins, smell with their tongues, even see heat. Have you ever climbed a tree without using you arms and legs? Try swimming without them.”
Rattlesnakes often get the most attention in Colorado because they’re some of the most visible and dangerous snakes in the state.
Even a decapitated rattlesnake can still bite and inject venom, because its heat sensory pits are active until rigor mortis is complete. A hand placed near the snake’s mouth can trigger the biting response.
It’s legal to kill rattlesnakes when necessary to protect life or property – as long as the method itself is permitted. However, the midget-faced rattlesnake, the massasauga and all non-poisonous snakes are classified as non-game wildlife and are protected by state law when they’re not posing a threat.
“Pay attention to where you’re putting your feet,” Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife information states. “In the spring, snakes often sun themselves on rocks to warm up, so be especially aware around outcroppings. Snakes tend to not be aggressive; Just try to avoid them altogether. You don’t want to surprise a snake.”
They’ll most often feel the vibrations of your footsteps approaching, but if not, and you see one on the trail, tap a stick on the ground so it knows you’re there. It’ll most likely slither away.
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