What Happens if You Mistake a Snake's Apathy for Affection

A study done at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada has proved that garter snakes form friendships. With each other, that is

Ruth Schuster
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Garter snakes
Garter snakes Credit: Photo by Chris Friesen, courtesy
Ruth Schuster

Snakes and reptilia in general weren’t even thought to have the part of the brain that controls love. Or falling in love. But the anecdotal evidence has ever been otherwise, showing scientists to be fools in anti-love. Now a study done at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada has proved that garter snakes form friendships. With each other, that is.

Psychologist Noam Miller and his grad student Morgan Skinner couldn’t tell apart the 10 garters in the study and marked their little heads with colored dots, they report in Science. Unless the snakes had the ability to screw with the scientists by secretly exchanging their paint marks, it’s scientific: They chose who to hang out with.

Twice daily the snakes were removed from their enclosures while they were being cleaned, which, whatever else it would achieve, also removed scent markings. But although replaced randomly, the garters would always revert to the same “social structure” – i.e., they chose to hang out with their friends. If that would happen in nature, we do not know.

Biologists may be shocked but aficionados of our scaly planetmates are unsurprised.

For one thing, some reptiles evince caring for their young – for a while. It is definitely not most of them and in fact, some may dine on their offspring. But skinks for instance will stay and protect the nest, the most devoted being the long-tailed skink of Taiwan, which may protect the kiddies for as long as a year.

It bears adding that a Taiwanese study from 2013 found that reptile maternal care is a function of the parental risk of getting eaten: “Maternal care evolves only when parents are able to successfully defend offspring from predators without increasing predation risk to themselves.” But some sort of caring is in there.

Crocodiles also provide devoted parental care. Clearly there’s some brain part involved in that devotion. And then there’s the famous story that began in 1989, when a Costa Rican fisherman saved a giant croc that had been shot in the face and was rewarded with the reptile’s fierce devotion (some might unkindly call it “titanic tolerance and perennial parasitism” – ignore the haters).

Gilberto Shedden found the humongous reptile dying by the riverbank and couldn’t bear it. Once it healed – a protracted process that involved gently feeding it and sharing a home with it for some six months – the reptile refused to return to the wild and you go argue with a 17-foot croc that’s moved onto your veranda. Shedden reportedly opted for the croc over his first wife, telling the press, “Another wife I could get. Pocho was one in a million.”

Costa Rica Chito "The Crocodile Man and the famous Crocodile Poncho"Credit: Nico Ruijter, YouTube

That Pocho was, no question, but sometimes we may misread the body language.

Take Alex the corn snake, who lived in my office space. I fondly thought the reptile recognized me and the food signal: three taps with my finger nail on the glass before serving supper. Sometimes Alex would miss the mouse and sink his fangs into my hand, but would immediately recoil in what I took to be reptilian embarrassment. Or maybe the scream put him off, who knows. All I do know is that he always let go immediately when biting me. Until he didn’t.

Alex the corn snake having a bath
Alex the corn snake having a bathCredit: Ruth Schuster

One day, a good five-plus feet long at that point, Alex shot past the mouse and buried his fangs into my thenar webspace, that skin between the thumb and the index finger. And he did not let go, no he did not. He wrapped his body around my arm and tried to constrict it.

Long story short, trying to distract him with a mouse didn’t work, nor did shrieking “Help me damn it” to the kid who was laughing helplessly, literally and figuratively, spluttering, “Yeah he really loves you, Mom.” Eventually I pried his fangs from of my flesh, gently because I was terrified of hurting his little mouth or drowning him in my blood, washed the wound, which didn’t help because it got infected with something weird anyway, and gave him the @&*(^ mouse using tongs.

So here are tips for befriending your reptile, but make no mistake, that friendship can be a very one-way street:

By all means talk and sing to your reptile, and give him treats. If he cringes, go away. The end.

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