by Derek Smith
Spring is here, which means that snakes are starting to emerge from their winter hideouts around MBGNA, and some of them are looking for mates.
Garter snakes are looking for mates this time of year, and the males can be particularly frisky. Multiple males will attempt to court a single female at once, and they can be so eager to mate that they sometimes try to court other snake species.
Such a breeding mishap was recently observed along Fleming Creek at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Pictured is a plump, female massasauga rattlesnake – Michigan’s only venomous snake – with four male garter snakes pursuing her. Scientists don’t fully understand what exactly about the massasauga the garters find so attractive, but one possibility is that the male garters are able to pick up on trails of chemical signals that the female massasauga leaves in the environment. While the female snakes leave these trails in the environment all year, the males only use them to find mates during their breeding season.
University of Michigan scientists have observed these cross-species mating events between garter snakes and massasaugas at Matthaei Botanical Gardens before. Hayley Crowell, a PhD Candidate from the University of Michigan’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, published a note about the mating mishaps together with photographer Nick Scobel in 2021, which means that this could be a repeating but rare phenomenon.
The eastern massasauga is a federally protected species and listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act. MBGNA staff are eager to track sightings of this snake. You can help by reporting massasauga sights (with or without garter snakes!) through this app.