Snake Season

Snake season is here.


Not a hunting season, but a season to admire Montana’s snakes for what they are: a vital cog in the natural world that serves an important purpose even if some of us suffer the heebie-jeebies at the mere thought of a snake.

Last week while out for a morning jog, I passed a gopher snake (our subspecies is the bullsnake) lying motionless and camouflaged on a bed of gravel next to the trail. No telling how many people walked or ran by the reptile without noticing it.

It was soaking in the morning sun, warming up its body temperature. If it were not disturbed, it would slither off as soon as the sun made the surrounding rocks too hot. When temperatures climb too much above their comfort zone of 80 to 86 degrees, bullsnakes seek the shelter of a rodent burrow or under trees and buildings.

Bullsnakes are good swimmers and harmless to humans but help control rodent populations. Photo by Kristi DuBois

Snakes may not be your cup of Lipton, but they fill a niche most of us should appreciate. That is their menu, which consists mostly of insects and rodents, depending on the species of snake.

Take that bullsnake I passed. While harmless to humans, it may have been digesting a meal of mice. According to “Amphibians and Reptiles of Montana”: Its ability to seek out and eat newborn rodents is uncanny.

Snakes may make your blood run cold, but their blood is cold. Literally.

All amphibians and reptiles are ectotherms, meaning they use the sun either by basking in sunlight or resting on warm surfaces to raise their body temperature and become active.

That’s why early on a summer morning it’s common to see snakes on the road. They are there to absorb the ground heat, warming up so they can find a meal.

In contrast, birds and mammals are endotherms, or warm-blooded. We control our body temperature by mechanisms like sweating to cool off or shivering to warm up.

Having the ability to control our body temperature would seem to be a tremendous advantage, but that power comes with a cost. Maintaining our warm blood means we must consume more food more often.

Snakes can go for longer periods between meals and expend less time and energy eating. At night and during periods of cold their body temperature drops and they conserve energy.

Of course, there are disadvantages to being cold-blooded, like moving slower and becoming easier prey.

No one said it was easy being a snake. They already have to crawl on their belly, and then there’s that whole Biblical thing.

Montana hosts ten species of snakes. A lot if you fear them not so many if you consider there are more than 2,900 species worldwide, with the greatest numbers in the tropics.

Just in the U.S., there is a tremendous increase as you move south by southeast. Missouri has 41 species of snakes, while Louisiana has 87, according to those states’ websites.

Safety tip: Don’t move south if you are deathly afraid of snakes.

But seriously, snakes serve a vital role. They help control rodent and insect populations that can damage our homes, crops and carry diseases.

So let’s hear it for snakes.