By Jessica Lee, Guest Writer
Interning at GTM is full of surprises. One of my favorites so far was the day we got to release 20 baby rat snakes into the wild.
Back in June, a yellow rat snake (Pantherophis obsoleta quadrivittata) unexpectedly laid eggs while in captivity. I say unexpectedly because the mama snake was rescued over a year ago. While driving down the road, a former employee spotted the snake peeking out the grill of a moving car. He was able to persuade the other vehicle to stop, and to the shock of that car’s driver, he wrangled the snake out of the grill and brought her back to the NERR where she was housed with a female corn snake. At the time of her rescue, she was not pregnant.
So, how did impregnation occur while two female snakes were housed together?
From talking to GTM’s Resource Management Coordinator Candace Killian, I learned that female snakes can retain a male snake’s sperm for extended periods until they are in the best condition to lay their eggs. Some species can retain sperm for years.
On June 18, Candace discovered 20 eggs in the snakes’ enclosure. She promptly removed the eggs and incubated them in their own enclosure. By late-August, hatching began.
To my surprise, it was a slow process. The young snakes didn’t just pop out of the eggs in a “Hello World” fashion. Instead, after the hatching process began and cracks in the eggs formed, some of the hatchlings remained in their eggs for a time. This delay is so they can get the last of the nutrients their eggs have to offer. The whole hatching process, from the time the first crack appeared on an egg to when the last snake emerged from its shell, took roughly 3 days.
In the end, all 20 snakes hatched successfully. They stayed in captivity for almost a month before it was time for their release. Many staff members at the GTM had the opportunity to participate in the release of the snakes with Candace and the Resource Management team.
If you are wondering, a baby snake release party is much like a typical party except there’s no dancing or music (although I’m pretty sure at one point Gabby and Emma were singing to their baby snakes). There are no party snacks or adult beverages. No balloons or streamers. Just snakes! And 15 ridiculously enthusiastic baby snake handlers.
We released the snakes just off the boardwalk trail near the freshwater marsh. Many pictures were taken and tears shed. They grow up so fast. We even witnessed a little predator-prey action as a hungry black racer whipped out of a nearby saw palmetto, enticed by the baby snake buffet we had laid before him. We chased him off, but that would be the last time we’d be able to protect our babies. They were on their own now.
Soon, the corn snake and yellow rat snake will have a new home, too. A much larger snake enclosure is currently being built. The new enclosure will be 6 feet in height with plenty of vines and branches for the snakes to climb. Once complete, the enclosure and its residents will be on display at GTM Research Reserve’s Education Center.
Jessica Lee is studying Coastal Environmental Science at the University of North Florida. Her interest lies in freshwater and estuarine ecology as well as the impact of anthropogenic factors on aquatic environments. She is presently working as a research intern at GTM Research Reserve where she is assisting with many long-term monitoring projects.