Snakes are prominent in myths of both major and minor religions. Buddha is sometimes depicted as being protected by a snake. In ancient Hinduism and Judaism, and Norse mythology, snakes represented rebirth. In ancient Chinese mythology a creature that was half snake and half woman was thought to be the creator of humans. The Aboriginal Australians believed that a snake was the creator of God. In ancient Egypt and Greece as well as Bronze Age Canaan and Mesopotamia, snakes had important symbolic roles. In both North and South America native people connected snakes to knowledge, fertility of crops, and sometimes evil. In many cultures snakes are believed to be the messengers between life in the underground and life above ground. Myths and religions with snakes playing an important role come from every continent except Antarctica, where there are not only no snakes but no indigenous people to make myths.
I found the presence of snakes in religion and myth so interesting that I couldn’t resist including it in this essay, which I intended to be about snakes in the Sourlands—particularly garter snakes.
When I told my wife that I was going to write an essay on snakes her first question was, how many species of snakes are in the Sourlands, and how many are venomous? That is not an easy question to answer because there is no inventory that is specific to the Sourlands. In 2002 the NJ Department of Environmental Protection published a field guide to reptiles and amphibians in NJ and it locates the animals by county. Parts of three counties are in the Sourlands and this guide shows that there are 14 species of snakes listed for all of those three counties. Some snakes in those counties might be located in areas that are outside of the Sourland region. Of the Sourland snakes, only the copperhead is venomous. Some of the others can hurt if they bite but they don’t do serious damage. Garter snakes have teeth but no fangs, and a bite from a garter is usually inconsequential.
My own first question about snakes was, how do they move? Slithering will not make them move forward. I found that the snakes in the Sourlands use two techniques, depending on if they are above ground or in a narrow tunnel underground. When the Sourlands’ snakes are above ground they use serpentine locomotion, in which their bodies assume a series of S-shaped horizontal loops. Each loop becomes anchored and pushes against any resistance it can find, like pebbles, twigs, or rocks. When the Sourlands’ snakes are in an underground tunnel they cannot form an S-shape so they anchor the front of their bodies and scrunch up the lower part, anchor it and push the front forward to the next place to anchor. Anchoring is a key part of snake movement and it is possible because snakes have scales that overlap from their heads to their tails and each place where an overlap occurs there is an edge that helps them anchor for a forward thrust.
Here is a brief summary of the information I gathered about garter snakes. Once a year garter snakes give live birth to about 20 babies and immediately ignore them. Half die in the first year but the average longevity for the survivors is 3-4 years. They do not eat plants but they will eat any animal that is small enough for them to swallow—mostly worms, grasshoppers, small rodents, eggs, baby birds, frogs and even toads (They are immune to toad toxins.). They swallow their prey live and suffocate it before digesting it. When their meal is fully digested they will vomit the bones and other waste matter. Garter snakes have good eyesight and hearing. They smell by flicking their tongues and then connecting their tongue to an organ inside their mouths that sends the scent information to their brain. Their tongues are forked and each fork gathers scent molecules, helping them locate the trail of what might be a meal, much like the way two eyes give depth to human sight. They have nostrils but they are primarily used for breathing, not smelling. Crows, hawks, squirrels, and raccoons prey upon garter snakes.
By Jim Amon