Originally Posted Online: April 14, 2012, 7:30 pm
Last Updated: April 14, 2012, 11:48 pm

Q-C hospitable area for snakes

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By Bill Mayeroff, bmayeroff@qconline.com

More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Augustana College biology professor Tim Muir said there are two populations of garter snakes on the campus. He said the baby garter snake in his hand is this size when born.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Chester the rat terrier has found several garter snake hiding places near his Rock Island home.

It was a warm afternoon when I first discovered Chester's special talent.

I was taking my 2-year-old terrier mix on a walk around our Rock Island neighborhood when he stopped by a bush and stuck his nose under it.

He sniffed a few times and then a few more before reaching a paw into the bush. A few more sniffs and a lunge. Turns out Chester had found some new toys -- several small garter snakes, each about 18 inches long, in the bushes.

It was not the only time he's found garter snakes. Since the weather began warming, Chester, who moved from the shelter to my apartment in September, has found several garter snake nests around the Broadway neighborhood.

As the fictional Indiana Jones said in one of his movies, "Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?"

The Quad-Cities area it turns out, is fairly hospitable to snakes, fortunately nonpoisonous ones.

Mandy Turnbull, head keeper at Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley, said this area has "good soil" and "a lot of rodents to eat. They eat pretty much anything small that's outside of water."

Ms. Turnbull said there are subspecies of garter snakes all over the United States.

Although local winters can be harsh, garter snakes hibernate, burrowing into the ground beneath the frost line, she said.

Once a garter snake finds a hibernation spot, they go to the same spot year after year, Ms. Turnbull said, adding that the hibernation spots may have just a few snakes or several hundred.

Garter snakes also like the moist habitat of this area, said Tim Muir, a biology professor at Augustana College in Rock Island. "There's also a lot of cover."

Sometimes, garter snakes get into places where they might not be welcome, he said. "People will find them in their houses in the winter."

Mr. Muir said this area is home to two species of garter snakes -- the plains garter snake and the eastern garter snake.

According to the Prairie Research Institute on the University of Illinois' website at www.inhs.illinois.edu, eastern garter snakes (thamnophis sirtalis) grow to nearly 40 inches, and are black with three yellow stripes. Plains garter snakes (thamnophis radix) look very similar, though the stripes are more orange.

Female eastern garter snakes, according to the institute, give birth to 15 to 80 young between July and October, while female plains garter snakes mate in April or May and give birth to five to 30 young from August to October.

Mr. Muir said there are populations of both eastern and plains garter snakes on the Augustana campus. He said that even though the past winter was much warmer than normal, it's unlikely many emerged from hibernation early.

During hibernation, garter snakes shut down their digestive process, and coming out of hibernation early and then getting cold again would take more energy than they could spare, he said.

The plains garter snake is more likely to emerge early if the temperature gets warm, but they have an internal mechanism to make sure it's actually time to end their hibernation, Mr. Muir said.

"They use day length," he said. "But that's modulated by temperature."

Despite the oddly warm winter, Mr. Muir doesn't think garter snakes around here are mating earlier than normal.

He said that while garter snakes pose no real danger to humans, when spooked, they defecate and release a noxious-smelling material. Since they are not constrictors and don't have powerful jaws, Mr. Muir said scent is their only defense.

"They just are kind of harmless."