Having a Ball

Garter snake mating ball Photo Courtesy of Paul Hancock Garter snake mating ballPhoto Courtesy of Paul Hancock In late April and early May, all of the snakes begin to emerge from their dens with two very important things on their mind. Males are the first to make their dramatic exit from the den, but rather than scurrying off to the marshes to fill their empty bellies with food, they sit and wait outside of the den. What could they possibly be waiting for that is more important than replenishing the lost nutrients and nourishment from the long winter? The answer to that question becomes clear once the female snakes slowly begin to emerge from the den. As each female exits, she is quickly surrounded by up to 100 males, so many that she could possibly be smothered, that begin to vigorously rub their chins all over her body. This strange spectacle is called a mating ball and this is the method by which the female will choose which male she will mate with. It is not clear how she chooses her mate from the many available males, but once she does she will normally only mate with that male. After a few days have elapsed she can choose to forgo the search for food and mate again, however at this time it is not known why the female would choose to do this. Many researchers believe it may have something to do with finding the fittest male for her future offspring. Generally, after mating, the female will quickly focus on the second task – finding food.

Watch a video of a snake mating ball

Mating Ball in a tree Mating ball in a treePhoto Courtesy of Manitoba Wildlife and Ecosystem Protection Branch The female then begins her journey to find an area with an abundance of food that will also provide a good spot for her to give birth. The marshlands of Manitoba generally provide a wonderful habitat for this to take place. Snakes have been recorded as journeying more than 20 kilometers away from the den to find food, although scientists speculate that they could go much farther. Only once the female has selected her area will she allow her body to ovulate and fertilize her eggs. However, if she determines that there is not enough food or the weather conditions would not make incubating her young an easy task, she can store the male snake’s sperm inside her reproductive tract, without being used, for up to seven years, at which point she can still fertilize her eggs.

A male snake rubs his chin on the female A male snake rubs his chin on the female Photo Courtesy of Paul Hancock Most reptiles lay eggs which may need to be incubated before the eggs can hatch live young. The red-sided garter snake is very different in that the eggs grow and are incubated within the mother, and she gives birth to live young, much like a mammal. As soon as the baby snakes are born they are fully independent and do not rely on their mother for protection or food. It takes three months for the baby snakes to fully develop within their mother. Many times, these babies are born toward the end of the warm months and must quickly adjust to be able to take care of themselves during the winter. One of the many great mysteries about these snakes is where the newly born baby snakes go during the cold winter months. Each fall, the adult snakes return to the dens in Narcisse; however, the baby snakes do not start brumating in the dens until they are at least two years old. It seems an amazing feat that these young babies could survive the harsh winters without the protection of the dens and the thousands of other snakes that reside inside them.