Hello from the Big Muddy Valley!

For my master’s thesis over the next two years I will be researching the ecology of grassland snakes in the Big Muddy Valley of southern Saskatchewan. I want to look at how bullsnakes and eastern yellow-bellied racers use the habitat in the Big Muddy, with emphasis on how they respond to agricultural land use when moving between dens and summer habitat. I would also like to explore how human land use affects the population genetics of these snakes.

My research started in early May, and one of the first things I’ve noticed in the Big Muddy is how helpful the landowners can be. Some of them love seeing the snakes around; while others would much rather avoid any direct snake encounters. However, the one thing that all the landowners have in common is that they WANT the snakes on their land, especially for rodent control.

The first few days in the Big Muddy were slow, with no snakes to be seen anywhere. The landowners even noticed our tough luck, but that was soon to change. After a morning of searching the valley high and low for snakes, my field assistant, Leagh and I decided to go check the roads. It must have been fate. As soon as we saw her sitting on the side of the road in a mass of coils, we shouted “SNAKE!” in unison and scrambled like bumbling idiots to catch her. It was exhilarating. Her name is Magenta (a reference from the Rocky Horror Picture Show), our first snake capture in the Big Muddy Valley. Magenta was implanted with a transmitter that week.

Here I am holding Magenta just after her capture. So exciting!

Our next snake capture wasn’t until almost two weeks later. We caught a tiny eastern yellow-bellied racer named Rocky (also from Rocky Horror!) and, a few days later, a large female racer named Drusilla, who took a chomp out of Leagh’s hand.  Rocky was too small for a radio-transmitter but Drusilla, on the other hand, has been implanted with a tracker and, to our dismay, likes to travel through thick-forested areas over long distances. She is quite a hassle to track.

Left: My second field assistant, Ana, holding little Rocky in the valley. Right: Drusilla showing off her long tongue

One of our more adventurous snake captures was Spike. One of the ranching families in the valley, phoned us and told us that they had a big bullsnake lying across their drive. If we had sirens they would have been blaring as we drove down to the valley to try and capture him. When we arrived, the family was trying to herd him away from burrows, but he had found a way to curl himself into a little hole in the ground and tie himself in a knot. It took us twenty minutes to catch Spike. As we started to army crawl to take him by surprise, he finally slithered out of the hole and we snagged him. Our first male bullsnake!

Leagh and I showing off Spike’s length; he is 5’5”.

Our record-breaking encounter happened this past week. We found three bullsnakes within ten minutes. We had just pulled up to a cement pad in the pasture of one landowner’s property (he had mentioned that bullsnakes like to hang out there). As we were getting out of the truck (me on the driver’s side, Ana and Leagh on the other side) I heard Ana say “SNAKES!”, Leagh say “What, no…”, and the snakes say “HIISSSSSSSS”. There were two very large and very angry bullsnakes beside our truck. One of them was a female and I swear she thought she was a rattlesnake: she was vibrating her tail and lunging at us while hissing. We called her Nagini (any Harry Potter fans?). The other one, which we eventually called Otto (get it?), climbed into the motor of our truck and we had to try to grab him out. It was basically the three of us running around the truck while the snake slithered back and forth, or up the tire, or into the motor. We must have looked ridiculous. After we wrangled the first two snakes, we found a third bullsnake slithering around the cement pad (we called him Dash).

Ana, Leagh, and me holding Dash, Otto, and Nagini. Can you tell we’re excited?

In the past few days we have caught three more bullsnakes and, honestly, they are starting to appear when we least expect them. Hopefully we can keep up our luck and maybe capture some racers as well. Have you spotted a bullsnake or  eastern yellow-bellied racer? Email me at snakes@royalsaskmuseum.ca I’d like to hear about your accounts.