Snakes Alive!

A yard-long gopher snake lies stretched across my driveway. Having lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains for over a quarter of a century, I have learned to recognize a snake when I see one. This is definitely a snake and, more specifically, definitely a gopher snake.

Both gopher snakes and rattlesnakes live around here. I’ve happened on both. It’s simple enough to tell them apart even though they are similar in color. Rattlesnakes have a distinct head and tail. And, after all, what is there to describe other than a head and a tail. In between a snake looks a lot like—well—a snake, although maybe a snake of a different color or stripe. This snake has no rattle on one end, no diamond-shaped head on the other, just an elegant snake body tapering to a point with a sleek integrated extension-of-the-body head on the other end.

I stop about two feet away. The snake doesn’t notice me. I decide to watch. When you see a snake, any kind of snake, you know you have the advantage. The snake has not seen you yet. If it had, it would be gone, more startled by you than you by it.

The snake doesn’t move. An ant marches deliberately toward the midsection of the snake carrying a leaf stalk many times its height. It reaches the snake and becomes confused. It turns and scurries toward the head of the snake. All I can see is the bobbing leaf stalk moving up the length of snake. The ant loses its scent trail and turns back to scurry along the snake towards its tail. Once again it loses the scent and turns toward the head. Three passes back and forth. Finally the ant climbs on the snake’s tail, is again confused and goes back to pacing the snake’s length.

The inert snake flicks its tongue and moves forward almost imperceptibly.  Smelling the air with its forked tongue, slowly, ever so slowly, the snake moves forward a bare fraction of an inch at a time. Ten minutes pass. The snake has moved a foot. The ant still scurries back and forth on the other side of the snake. The snake continues its slow progress. Finally the snake moves far enough for the ant to find its path. It eagerly surges forward, but encounters another ant, one of a different species. The ants engage each other. A battle ensues. The ant that finally got past the snake abandons its stalk and repeatedly attacks the intruding ant. It seizes the ant, which is almost its same size. Forsaking its plant trophy, it carries its captive, still struggling, down the preordained path.

The snake moves another six inches, a millimeter at a time. It becomes infinitesimally more animated. Its tongue flicks faster; it starts swaying its head from side to side. Twenty minutes have passed. The ant has carried off its victim. The snake is gradually being swallowed by the chaparral leaving a furrow in the dust of the driveway.

The beginning of this story? The end? There is no beginning; there is no end. Life continues.

To compare a gopher snake and a rattlesnake visit YSI in Alum Rock Park.

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