Thursday, May 6, 2010

Nature Photography:  Grandma peels back the curtain

Gay wrote naturalist picture stories as letters to her grandchildren. Fortunately, most of Gay's grandchildren liked icky things like bugs and snakes.  During visits to Missouri one grandchild or another would come in beaming and grubby opening his/her hands saying "look what I found grandma".  Gay would peer down, finding frogs, insects, slugs, little turtles, snakes, cocoons, or some other little form of life. She would gasp with wonder and pleasure, clap her hands and either name it in Latin or run for the right guide.  What a pleasure! Then she would tell some outrageous fact about the creature-- science fiction has nothing on science for really great stories.

This is a story about the Rough green snake, Opheodrys aestivus,  
also known as a grass snake or whip snake.    
We have added a few details to her original story (in blue).   

By Gay Bumgarner October 2004
and Friends May 2010 
"The other day in the garden I found two one inch by 1/2 inch white blob-like things. At first I thought they were mushrooms but I couldn't see a stem and the shape wasn't right.  I picked them up.
They were firm but not hard, a little sticky, and they actually did feel like mushrooms. They were eggs,  snake eggs!  I wasn't sure exactly what kind but I figured they would be interesting to watch and photograph so I moved them inside to my terrarium (that little world in the glass box upstairs in the guest bedroom/ studio) so I could watch the whole thing unfold.  I spent some time looking in the books to be sure what I could expect to see and what "it" might need. I called my friends and experts in the vivarium world and was given the advice that they were most likely green snake eggs or ring neck snakes.

I went upstairs often to look in on them and see what was happening. I wasn't sure how fast they might hatch since I didn't know how long ago they were laid.   On the third day I saw this little face peering out.  cute!

It was a Rough green snake, alert, looking around, sticking out its tongue (smelling), and taking its first glimpse of the world. It breaks through (pip) by making a tear on the side of the egg with its egg tooth.  I set up my cameras waiting for more action but, amazingly, it stayed right there in the egg for two days.  It would pull his/her head back or poke it out but, seemed to be quite content.  I wasn't sure if it was waiting, building up its strength, or even stuck, I wondered, should I rescue it-- Snake Midwife?  The other one did the same thing and for awhile they both had their heads poking out looking at each other and the world. 

Eventually they came out.  It was about the size of a small worm with a thread-like tail.

When I put my finger down toward him to see if I could touch him this is how he responded.  Adorable just like a big snake.

He wanted to frighten away whatever this "threat" was. As you can see he has no teeth and he is quite harmless but he is putting on a good show and sometimes the show is everything.  Both eggs hatched and I returned them to the garden where I found the eggs.  Rough green snakes are arboreal and live in trees which is unusual in the US.  Their green color helps them hide among the leaves in trees.  When the wind blows they purposely wave their bodies like a branch. In fact when these snakes hang on branches, they maintain rapid, rhythmic, side to side head movements.  Some say these motions enhance the snakes vision and ability to see in three-dimensional range, some say it helps them hide.  I say it definitely makes them look cool.

In this very brief video clip by the state of Missouri you can see the head movements of the baby snake.

Even more exciting..... a couple of days ago Ben my garden helper saw a bobcat in the shed up in  the woods.  I find this very exciting since bobcats are hard to see especially since they are nocturnal (stay up all night). THE END.

I love you all
Mother-grandmother Gay"

Thanks to Sharon McDonnell, Suzanne Rhodes, Meg Harper, Karen Joyce and Natalya McDonnell for editing, expertise, and questions.

Additional Questions from our editorial board and readers:
1. Snakes in eggs?  
Yes. Some snakes are born from eggs that are laid outside the mother.  Other egg-laying snakes besides the rough green snake are black rat snakes, bullsnakes, kingsnakes, racers, worm snakes, ring-necked snakes.  As a more "evolved" or advanced alternative there are snakes that retain their young inside their bodies in yolk sacs until they are completely developed.  These include water snakes, garter snakes, brown snakes, copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes.

Mother Green snakes can can keep the eggs in their bodies until they are almost ready to hatch or lay them.  The longer they are in their mother the more quickly they hatch because they stay warmer.  So, if you see an egg on the ground it might hatch in 4 days or 2 months. 

2. They stay in the eggs? Is that typical? Aren't they are hungry or restless?
Female Rough green snakes sometimes lay their eggs in communal sites on the ground or in the holes of trees. As a young snake develops within the egg, a small egg tooth grows on the tip of its snout; the snake uses this tooth to slit the shell when hatching and then sheds it after hatching.
Baby snakes may stay in the egg for 48 to 72 hours after pipping, in order to absorb the remainder of the yolk sac.

3. What do baby green snakes eat? Did Gay have to bring them food?
These snake east all sorts of soft bodied or hairless insects (including moths, butterflies, crickets, grasshoppers, and many caterpillars) and spiders.  A snake will find prey by vision or the chemosensory systems on it's tongue.  Since these snakes are not venomous, nor constrictors and don't have teeth they simply grab, gum, and swallow.  There is a video of this on YouTube that involves a cricket that I spared you.

Yes, Gay fed them little crickets and mealworms before she put them back in the wild. Yummm.

4. If this is a rough green snake is there a smooth green snake?
You betcha. Rough and smooth depend on whether they have scales (rough) also known as keels.

5. They live in trees?
As the University of PA site points out, the name of this wee green snake is very informative.  "It is a “serpent” (“ophios”) that lives in trees (“drys”) that is active in the warm months of summer (“aestivus”)".  They like climbing branches to high sunny spots to keep warm.  But, they are comfortable on the ground and if they need to they can swim quite well too.

6. Any good links if I want more information about green snakes?
a. Animal world pictures and backround on rough green snake
b.  Pennsylvania University site on rough green snake

Want to see a picture of a copperhead? Picture of copperhead snake
How about a funny snake picture?  Snake and dragonfly
If you have more questions or would like us to explore your favorite animal or natural event please send us a suggestion in the comments.


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