River talk

A twist of fate

By SANDY LONG
Posted 4/27/22

The world of nature is full of surprises, and they are not always pleasant. Walking on the road where I live in Pike County, PA, I came upon an Eastern garter snake curled on the macadam. Bending …

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River talk

A twist of fate

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The world of nature is full of surprises, and they are not always pleasant. Walking on the road where I live in Pike County, PA, I came upon an Eastern garter snake curled on the macadam. Bending down to remove the hapless reptile from the hazards of the roadway, I discovered not one, but two snakes entwined in the classic lover’s knot of reproduction.

As spring sweeps the Upper Delaware River region, such encounters are not uncommon. Unfortunately, this one would not prove fruitful, as the larger female had already fallen victim to an early fate and was no longer alive. Leaving the living male at risk was not an option, but as I gathered the pair up, instead of slithering quickly away, the male scrambled to tighten his grip, perhaps unaware that his partner had passed away.

I placed the serpentine lover’s knot in the nearby grass and snapped the photos in this column, then switched my smartphone to video mode and began filming. The male moved off, seemingly intent on leaving, only to loop back toward his fallen mate and to investigate me more closely. Again and again, he sampled the air for scent molecules with his delicate and sensitive forked tongue, driving forward toward me with head held high. (See the video at riverreporter.com/outdoors.) I left them to their unfortunate fate.

In its informative wildlife notes on snakes, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission helps to dispel one of the many misunderstandings surrounding snakes. “The tongue seen darting quickly in and out of the mouths of snakes has been a source of myth and tall tales. It is not a needle-like projection and cannot be used to penetrate the skin of prey, a nearby foe or humans. It is not capable of injecting venom or any other toxic substance. It is, in fact, harmless.”

The forked tongue is an important part of an extremely sensitive system used for tasting and smelling. It darts in and out of the mouth through a notch in the upper jaw even when the mouth is closed. “When extended, the tongue picks up microscopic particles from the air and brings them into the mouth. Here, the double-tipped tongue quickly places the samples into two small cavities embedded in the palate at the rear of the mouth.”

The cavities lead to a chemical receptor called the Jacobson’s organ, which contains sensory cells able to identify chemical particles and to transmit these sensations of taste-smell to the brain. This enables the snake to detect the presence of enemies, find food and locate its mate. Visit https://bit.ly/3Kb0fSQ to learn more.

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