That was one jumbo garter snake, friends! Even longer than the timber rattlesnake I witnessed a couple of weeks ago in a friends barn, though falling short in girth, rattles, and venom.
Though this Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) was docile and quickly retreated into a crevice in the stone wall, it’s a common misconception that these familiar garden-variety snakes are not venomous. They are.
According to Dr. Bryan Fry, a biologist from the University of Melbourne, garter snakes needn’t be feared, but the do use venom to subdue their prey.
“Most of the snakes that we think of as nonvenomous are actually venomous,” he explained. Garter snakes and many other supposedly nonvenomous snakes actually produce tiny amounts of venom. Dr. Fry is quick to point out that this does not mean that garter snakes are dangerous. “All they need to do is stun a frog or slow it down a bit, and it’s enough to help them,” he said. (The New York Times)
I recall being bitten by a testy garter snake multiple times as a young boy. Then, as now, I was intrigued with snakes. I was less than five years old, playing in the yard at “The Farm”. I no longer recall where or how I captured the small snake, but I knew enough to discern between dangerous snakes and the almost harmless garter snake.
Each time I would pick up the increasingly angry snake, it would bite my hand. I would drop it into the grass and then stoop to pick it up again. Another bite. Drop. Pick up.
I was a slow learner.
Despite a collection of small nips, there was no lasting damage. Apparently no venom made its way into my young hand.
Although garter snakes are not considered venomous, they have a gland above the upper jaw on either side (corresponding to the venom gland of vipers and other venomous snakes) that produces potentially toxic secretions. In general, bites from garter snakes are harmless because these snakes lack fangs and thus cannot efficiently inject the gland’s secretions. However, prolonged bites by western terrestrial and common garter snakes have caused swelling and localized bleeding in people, presumably because unusually large amounts of the secretions seeped into the victims. (Online Nevada Encyclopedia)
I rarely pick up garter snakes these days. I’m not sure exactly why, but I don’t. Maybe I’m more sensitive to their plight, aware that being pulled out of your habitat by a clumsy giant just so he can get a closer look isn’t exactly what I’d wish for were in the serpent’s handsome black and yellow striped skin. Or scales…
Nevertheless I enjoy finding them, especially when they’re as big and healthy as this one. I discovered him sunning in the Snow in Summer, a soft cushiony groundcover that must have felt pretty pleasant with the morning sun. Until a gawking giant and his nosy Labrador Retriever came along.