Toby Garter: A Short Video Documentary

Last year I was fortunate to observe a few Eastern Garter Snakes late in March. I had set out to track when and how life returned to Medway Creek, without expecting to find any snakes so early in the season. After stumbling upon many Garter Snakes and being amongst a few individuals that I photographed for the first time, I started following one unique fellow with a rather dark abdomen compared to the others around. His name is Toby and this is his story.

Toby is just another male Garter Snake in this vast country who spent the cold months huddled in a hibernacula with his fellow mates. Now he is out and about, exploring the dense woodland surrounding a fragment of Medway Creek – a tributary of Thames River in London, Ontario, with one important mission – to find a mate and pass on his genes.


(The script of narration is provided at the bottom)

If you watched the documentary, you may have had the same question in mind – was it really a female or just a trickster male? I was quite fascinated by the change in the behaviour of Toby and his competitor. Although the stranger looked bigger than these two, which strongly suggests that it was a female, there is a slight chance that it was a male, one of the few who can mimic female pheromones*.

All garter snakes rely heavily on the pheromones to communicate with one another. Once the females are out of the winter dens, the males are alerted by their scent and surround them in what is called a mating ball, but only one (or few) succeeds in copulating. Eastern Garter Snakes are known to produce copulatory plugs that act as a physical barrier against additional matings, but according to this study, multiple paternity was confirmed in 50% of the litters examined. The breeding season lasts until April, and the female gestates the eggs for 2-3 months. After mating, the female moves on to the summer feeding grounds, away from the frenzy of males. Interestingly, they give birth to live snakes, which can be seen hiding beneath boulders in July-August months.

Toby was one determined snake and his search was a long one. I went back the other day to find him, but couldn’t. I hope he was successful in finding his soulmate, if not last, then this year!

*This particular behaviour is extensively studied in Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis (Red-sided Garter Snake). Two excellent papers regarding this behaviour, but with rather contrasting observations can be viewed here and here. I did not find any references concerning this behaviour in Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis (Eastern Garter Snake), therefore I presume it was a female.

Here's the script for those who may not follow my accent:
"This is Toby. He is an eastern garter snake. He is out exploring around the hibernacula where many other snakes hibernated for winter. The Eastern Garter Snake is the commonest snake of Ontario. They are semi-venomous, and prefer hunting smaller prey such as spiders, frogs and fish.
Here we see two males interacting and gathering information by flicking their tongues. The males are the first to wander out as soon as spring arrives. This helps them to be ready to mate with females as they come out of the dens a little later in the season. The month of March and April is the mating season for these snakes.
He will meet many other den mates on his way, who are also his competitors.
This rather large snake suddenly appeared on the path and lead to some behavioral changes in Toby and the other male. Who is this stranger? Toby has a hint.
The rapid tongue flicking and brisk head movements mean something is up in the air. They have probably caught a scent, perhaps that of female pheromones.
Toby and the other male compete with one another to track the scent. The search is frantic, and the competition tight. He then decides to investigate the path where the stranger passed from. His curiosity is apparent from his side-to-side head movement and rapid tongue flicking. The other male as well comes down to investigate. Toby goes back, perhaps losing the scent trail – but he hasn’t given up yet.
He then proceeds to the other side of the path – closer to the creek where he searches exhaustively, from branch to branch and boulder to boulder, constantly tasting the air.
Toby’s search will go on until he finds his mate. The day has almost come to an end, but he has fierce competition to face in the future as he wanders in this small but beautiful paradise at Medway Creek."
This was my first ever try at filming wildlife as well as at narrating. Please feel free to critique or comment, and thank you for reading and watching!

4 comments:

  1. I have been reading through your blog and having a wonderful time. It is so informative and the pictures are fantastic.
    Wanderer's Eye Is Nature Site of the Week at Nature Center Magazine.

    Emma Springfield

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  2. Emma, thank you for reading through my blog and for the feature! Nature Center Magzine is a great resource to browse through, I will make sure to visit often!

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  3. Excellent Work ...as usual :)

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