I’d been wading the creek less than ten minutes last weekend before I spotted the undulations of a banded water snake a short distance ahead of me. The first time this ever happened to me, I screamed a little bit and jumped backward. I’m not creeped out by snakes in the way that I am by crunchy bugs, but it was still startling; one doesn’t expect to bump into a snake in the water in Indiana. Since then, though, I’ve had so many encounters with this harmless water snake that it’s no longer a surprise to see one wiggling toward me. Now it’s a treat.
Banded water snakes have one intractable problem in life: when they are older and their scales have darkened, they look a lot like a grouchy and highly venomous snake called a cottonmouth. It’s a little like having Charles Manson as your celebrity doppelganger; startling people is going to be dangerous. It’s the same way for banded water snakes, who are forever being killed because people mistake them for someone else. There are differences, though. Cottonmouths are much stockier than our graceful, slender friend the banded water snake, and their heads are much blockier and sprout from a noticeably narrower neck — a kind of reptilian bobblehead. The banded water snake, on the other hand, is much more streamlined.
The banded water snake’s mistaken identity problems arise from an evolutionary strategy called mimicry, which happens a lot in the snake world. It’s a pretty good strategy confined to the non-human world — looking exactly like a hardened killer can help you out when your opponents don’t have opposable thumbs with which to kill you in self-defense. But it’s not so great when you run into higher order primates who do.
This isn’t the only misunderstanding that exists between banded water snakes and human beings. Many people believe, mistakenly, that banded water snakes prey on sport fish, which has given the snake a bad name among anglers. In fact, these snakes dine mostly on non-game fish, and frogs. Banded water snakes can even smell the proteins in the goo coating the skin of its prey.
They hibernate in the winter, and in the spring emerge from their den and immediately start having sex, which seems perfectly rational for someone who has to nap for half the year. The dudes congregate in the water first, as if discussing strategy for the coming orgy. Then, when a male finds a female he likes, his opening move is to place his chin on her back in gentle supplication. If she digs him, then they’ll twist themselves into a love knot. Three to five months later, the female will give live birth to several tiny, 8-inch long snake babies. The brood will contain anywhere from 4 to 50 snake infants, which strikes me as an unreasonably large range — or it would if the mother was expected to care for them after birth, which she apparently doesn’t.
I will note as an aside that usually, the only way to determine the sex of a snake, other than to witness a female squirting her babies into the creek, is to insert a probe into its cloaca, and measure the resistance. And the alien conspiracy theorists think they had it bad on the spaceship? Talk to the snakes.