Published June 26, 2014
Crawling through a writhing pit of 75,000 snakes may not be everyone's idea of a great day at work, but it was for Paul Colangelo.
Each spring, masses of red-sided garter snakes congregate inside limestone caves to form mating balls, in which up to a hundred male snakes vie for a single female. She, in turn, "is desperately trying to get out of the pit," said Colangelo, an environmental documentary photographer.
These slithery swarms appear to be a "frenzy, but a closer look reveals a much finer dance," Colangelo said in his field notes. "The small males court the larger female by rubbing her head with their chins and maintaining as much contact between their long bodies as possible."
To Colangelo, getting up close and personal with the oft-feared reptiles can show people that snakes are fascinating, underappreciated, and even, he'll admit, a little cute. They have "puppy-dog eyes—they just don't blink," he quipped. (Also see "Year of the Snake: The Serpent Behind the Horoscope.")
We caught up with Colangelo to learn more about his snake-mating adventure.
How did you decide to do this project?
When I first heard about the largest concentration of snakes in the world in rural Manitoba, [my reaction was,] "That's the last place I would think something like that would happen." The winters are -40 [Fahrenheit/Celsius]. It's just so intriguing. I wanted to go and take a look.
It's not very well known outside of the snake world, but [Narcisse] does get a decent number of tourists, around 3,000 to 4,000 people a day [during mating season]. People come in from California just to do this—it's kind of a niche interest. (See "Wild Romance: Weird Animal Courtship and Mating Rituals.")
Why is this the largest gathering of snakes? What attracts them?
This grouping of red-sided garter snakes has the most northern range of any reptile in the Western Hemisphere. It's due to a lucky coincidence of two geological features: limestone crevices and marshes. It's a fantastic place for snakes to be in the summer because there are huge marshes loaded with frogs, but in the winter it drops down to -40. The only reason all these snakes can survive these winters is because of the large limestone crevices that reach deep into the ground, below the frostline. They spend about eight months of the year in these large underground chambers. They come out in the spring, mate in these dens and [then travel] up to 20 kilometers [12 miles] to their summer grounds, load up with amphibians and worms, and head back to the cave. (See National Geographic's pictures of snakes.)
What was it like being among all these mating snakes?
I was indifferent to snakes going into this. I didn't fear them, I didn't love them. After awhile spending time in the snake dens, you learn to appreciate their finer points and see the world from their point of view. They do these cute [behaviors called] periscoping, where they stick their necks up and look around.
They'll come and investigate you. In the den, they're not [behaving normally], since they're so focused on mating. If you're not a female snake, you might as well be a rock. The instant you sit down, you're literally covered with them.
Tourists view the dens by walking on a boardwalk. Snakes are all over the place. Interpreters are on hand and encourage people to pick one snake up at a time. There aren't many places where you can go and interact with wild animals like that. They're totally harmless, but they do have a line of defense if they get startled—emitting a bodily fluid on you. It's not feces, but it smells just as bad.
Any interesting or unusual things happen to you during your filming?
This was completely different than other wildlife stories I've shot. Most of the time the challenge is locating and getting close to the wildlife—here the challenge was to not step on them or take them home in your camera bag. They coil up everywhere.
Is this annual gathering threatened in any way?
Manitoba has had severe, early winters [including one in 1999], during which a lot of snakes didn't make it back to the dens in time, and there were massive die-offs. It's stable now. The other issue is [snakes crossing the nearby] highway. Local legend has it that cars were skidding off the road because [the roads] were so oily due to dead snakes. Previously, about 20,000 snakes were dying on the highway each year. Ironically, the very people who were coming to see the snakes ended up running them over. But a great grassroots effort reduced the highway mortality to 2,000 by installing pipes underneath the highway, allowing the snakes to pass safely.
Are there other places that this happens?
Nowhere do they congregate in such great numbers. There's a lot of really amazing science going on there, including a team of researchers in Oregon led by Dr. Bob Mason, who has been going up there for over 30 years.
What's interested you the most about the snake pits?
Mating balls are the most intriguing part. All of the males come out first and hang out at the base of the pit, and females are instantly mobbed. The females then give birth out in the summer grounds, in the marshes. The curious thing is that those newborns are immediately abandoned. None of those newborns return to the dens. They find spots in the summer grounds to overwinter. Not much is known about why they don't migrate to the dens or how they survive the winter. (See more of National Geographic's snake videos.)
Another mystery is the snakes' loyalty to their dens: They return to the same den each year. How do they make it back? Some suspect they follow pheromones of other snakes. The obvious question is, how does the first snake find its way back?
What do you want readers to take away from your visit to Narcisse?
You always hear people say, "I hate snakes," but they're incredible species. One insightful little boy [told me], people are afraid of snakes because the way they move is mysterious and [unpredictable]—it's almost like they're under a spell. (Related: "Fear of Snakes, Spiders Rooted in Evolution, Study Finds.")
Getting down on your belly and actually spending time with a calm, [nonpoisonous] snake gives you an appreciation for them, and that fear will disappear.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Thank you so much for posting this awesome observations about snakes! You are very true that snakes are incredible species. More studies to be posted! :)
I heard about only other spices mate in a particular place. But this is strange. The people of Manitoba are doing a good work.
I hardly watch until the end of video . a successful work . I guess I will not go to the manitoba for the rest of my life :S
Very beautifull, it is very easy to view sitting quitely, in Chennai, Tamailnadu India also have snake park,but this different thanks National Geographic
Thank you for the interesting article. I love snakes. I used to keep garter snakes as pets. I would feed them live goldfish. I did my PhD thesis on rattle snake venom.
The article is great yet I am not encouraged to make friends with (even nonpoisonous) snakes...
How did the female enter the pit? Why would she want to escape? How did pit mates choose themselves and the female? Does it mean pheromones differ for each pit so snakes do not stray into the wrong pit? What do they feed on while in the pit? How many times will the female be mated by the guys? Will the rest of males sleep off when one male succeeds in making genital contact? Is it right to say this is a rape tournament of a single female?
I need answers otherwise the write up will not pass my editing table.
I like that we don't have any poisonous snakes here.... I have lived here all my life and I never went to the pits. I see maybe about 4 snakes a year on my property. The last one was on the road a bird had dropped it from the sky!
My brand new laptop has just lost it's virginity to the grossest video on the web. It is no longer pure and innocent. . . pour baby.
"desperately trying to get out of the pit" how alarming 100:1 snakes! Did anyone try to help her or did you all sit and watch? You can understand why there are so few females now I suppose. Poor thing.
I used to go there as a kid. It now is a very popular tourist spot and gets thousands of visitors. I'm glad it is protected by fences and has become an educational destination. Back in the day we climbed down into the pits. An amazing experience!!
I have never been disgusted, or frightened by snakes, but could never do what you did.A most interesting article, giving us room to learn more about these snakes. So thanks are due. j.e.s.......
@özden Işler Only in this spicific area in MB is there snakes. Outside of the Interlake and other isolated area's there are no snakes to be seen in MB. I even live within driving distance to the dens, and I have never seen a snake in my hometown.
@Donatus Nnadi I work in the area and can answer some of your questions:
How did the female enter the pit?
The males will awaken first, and move out in to the open area, then the females will follow and as they come out they secrete the pheromone.
How did pit mates choose themselves and the female?
As far as I can tell there is no determinable choise involved, The 4 biggest populations are within a few kilometers of each other, so some crossing over does occur (the max range away from the den is ~15km) In smaller dens inbreeding is a problem.
Does it mean pheromones differ for each pit so snakes do not stray into the wrong pit?
No, See above
What do they feed on while in the pit?
They do not feed in the pit, this is one of the more fascinating points of these unique animals. You would think that after a long hibernation they would need to feed right away, but the opposite is true. Males will actually produce their sperm in the year before, when they have the energy from feeding. and females will hold the sperm from fertilizing until she has the capacity to give birth. There is even a recorded incident of a female giving birth after 5 years in captivity!
How many times will the female be mated by the guys?
In a mating ball, there is one female to a bunch of males. When a male does the dirty deed, he leaves a plug to physically stop the other males from mating. Although some studies have revealed that in a litter(?) there can be different fathers.
Will the rest of males sleep off when one male succeeds in making genital contact?
It all has to do with pheromones, The female attracts males to her by secreting a pheromone that says that she is ready to mate, and the males come to do it. As I said earlier, when the deed is done, the female stops the pheromone and leaves, while the males try their luck again.
Is it right to say this is a rape tournament of a single female?
ಠ_ಠ no, as i said before the female sends off signals to attract the males. In fact some males have developed the skill to recreate this pheromone to distract other males from the true females.
@Amanda Burns best to let nature take its course.
Once the female stops secreting the pheromone, the males, if they were unsuccessful in breeding will go back into the pit to attempt again. In fact when one male successfully breeds it leaves a plug to stop other males from breeding with the female.
@allan eppler Oh my you used to go in the pits? We went a few years ago and they're fenced off. But so many snakes everywhere outside the pits... It really was amazing!
@Robert Warner lol
It's all hands (and paws) on deck when it comes to the poaching crisis in Africa.
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