A Living Sea of Spaghetti
July 3, 2014 12:12 PM   Subscribe

Nat Geo Snake Dens of Manitoba (video 3:43) Every year, thousands of snakes gather at the Narcisse Snake Dens in Manitoba, Canada. It's billed as the largest gathering of snakes anywhere in the world. Manitoba’s climate and geology make it the perfect place for red-sided garter snakes to live and mate. It has become a tourist attraction, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
posted by srboisvert (34 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
the largest gathering of snakes anywhere in the world.

Okay, I know that this isn't the case, but for some reason that choice of words is giving me the mental image of, like, a snake version of Burning Man or something.

I vastly prefer that to what I would no doubt see at the actual video so I'm going to stick with that image please kthx
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:16 PM on July 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Ooooh it's a snake. Ohh a holyshitthatsalotofsnakes.
posted by Twain Device at 12:16 PM on July 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

MeFi: Literally tens of thousands of snakes in a sink hole the size of someone's living room.
posted by The Bellman at 12:18 PM on July 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

[insert Samuel L. Jackson here]
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:29 PM on July 3, 2014

So, I've traveled around BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec, but despite it being right there in the middle of all the provinces I have visited, I've never left the airport in Manitoba. And suddenly, I feel pretty good about my life choices.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:32 PM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh god that's hilarious how the mom gets the willies and her little girl apologizes for the wiggly snake.
posted by ReeMonster at 12:33 PM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope....
posted by dnash at 12:43 PM on July 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Can any biologists comment on the non-territoriality of males despite the scarcity of females as depicted in this video?
posted by dilaudid at 12:45 PM on July 3, 2014

And why is there a scarcity of females in the first place?
posted by dilaudid at 12:47 PM on July 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

My impression from watching BBC nature films is that it isn't that females are much rarer, it's that the waking females get their mating done and head on out to eat and get on with the season, while the males hang around in hopes of mating with later-emerging females. So at any given time you'll have a few females and lots of males.
posted by tavella at 12:52 PM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

the waking females get their mating done and head on out to eat and get on with the season, while the males hang around in hopes of mating with later-emerging females

I will not anthropomorphize the snakes.
I will not anthropomorphize the snakes.
I will not anthropomorphize the snakes.
I will not . . .

posted by The Bellman at 12:55 PM on July 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

I've been there twice. One thing not mentioned in the video is how far the snakes might travel to return for the winter which was, IIRC, seventeen km.

It's a nice park and the rangers are more than happy to answer questions.
posted by vapidave at 12:57 PM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I carefully avoided turning certain pages in the big dictionary when I was a child because there were pictures of snakes. I am pleased to report that finally I am able to voluntarily watch that video.
posted by Anitanola at 12:58 PM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had a pet snake once.

I was living on my own for a bit from somewhere around the time I was 16 until a few months before I turned 18, shortly after which I left for college. During that period that I lived on my own, I acquired a ball python from a co-worker of mine. He was named Cope (pronounced ko-pee) - the snake, not the coworker - after the chewing tobacco, Copenhagen. Said co-worker was a hick, the kind that many northern California natives frown on because they, at the time, made Phil Jackson's sweeping generalizations somewhat accurate.

When I moved back home before leaving for college, mom did NOT like the idea of having a snake around, but I was able to keep it in the garage when I moved back in on the promise that he would not come in the house.

Well, one day I'm working on my car and I had him draped around my neck, and I literally lean inside the door to grab a tool from the laundry room. Providence would have it that mom pulls up right then and that was close enough to the snake being in the house. So he had to go to the barn until I left for school, and that's when I gave him to my buddy Ed, down the street, for safe keeping.

Ed keeps him through my freshman and sophomore years at college, and everything's going fine. But then the summer between my sophomore and junior years, Ed informs me he's moving to the bay area for school and can't keep him. I didn't want to get rid of him, but I had no means / funds to transport him back to Pennsylvania. I also had the faint thought that it might not be a good idea / within the school rules to own a snake there, but that faded pretty quickly.

And then the Grinch had a wonderful terrible idea.

The night before I was due to go back to college, I picked up Cope from Ed, and took him home. I kept him in a pillowcase with the top tied in a knot - he would just sleep coiled up in there. Mom would have killed me if she knew he spent the night in my room. The next morning the pillowcase goes delicately in the top of my backpack, and I deliberately dress in nothing containing any metal whatsoever - shorts, sweatpants, t-shirt, big hoodie, and flip flops.

This was the year that my sister was coming to join me at our college back east as a freshman. Being my sister, she packed way, WAY too much stuff, and when we get to the airport they inform her that one of her bags is too heavy. So we have to start unpacking all her vital stuff and mom starts trying to put some in my bags. Well mine get pretty full in a hurry, and then mom starts angling for the backpack, which has not left my back, as it has a sleeping snake in the top of it.

At this point we got into a bit of an...arguement... about...the situation at large. I really wasn't upset like I was feigning, but there was no way I could let mom kill my snake cramming my sister's crap on top of him, much less risk her finding him in my backpack and freaking out in the middle of a busy SMF airport.

So I proceed to STORM off to the bathroom, and that was pretty much that.

Of course, the bathroom was all part of the plan anyway. I head into a bathroom stall, take Cope out, wrap him around my waist (he'd often just chill there like a big thick belt, if he wasn't feeling super active), and tuck my shirt around him and into my pants. I put the hoodie on over the shirt, close up the backpack, come back out, settle things with the folks, and then sister and I head off to security.

I've got Cope wrapped around my waist the whole time. Put the backpack on the x-ray belt, breeze through the metal detector, pick up my bag, head back to the next bathroom I can find, pack Cope back up in the pillowcase / backpack, and head for the gate (this is all pre-9/11 mind you, probably wouldn't have tried this after).

Sister and I proceed to fly cross-country with Cope sleeping at my feet. He spends the night with me at our uncle's place in Cleveland, then we arrive safe and sound at college where my first order of business was buying an aquarium.

That was how my junior year at college started. All the guys would come over once a month to watch me feed him the live mouse, it was good times.

However, there were a few guys in particular who were NOT privvy to said feedings, namely the two goth geeks who lived in the room next to me, and generally ruined my otherwise serendipitous experience in this particular dorm. They had their geek buddies up to do geeky and sometimes downright creepy stuff with them CONSTANTLY and it was usually in the middle of the night, when normal people (namely, me) were trying to sleep.

One evening I walked by their door and it was open, but all the lights were off in the room. I heard talking / giggling. I stood there for a minute trying to figure out what was going on, before I realized they were watching the windows of the girls' dorm across the street with binoculars, from the dark of their room.

Suffice to say I didn't make friends with these guys. I couldn't stand these guys. I did not get on well with them.

Back to Cope.

A python's main goal in life is to find a way out of his aquarium and go explore for warm dark places to curl up and sleep, where no one will bother him. So of course one day about halfway through the semester he manages to break out and disappear. Now, these things can go almost anywhere, squeeze into almost any hole, find the most random places, etc. - so you have to be careful when searching, and you have to look EVERYWHERE.

So the first thing to do is make sure he's not in the room, which meant moving the entire room, piece by piece, into the hall. Check every drawer, between the clothes, inside the desk, check the mattresses for potential holes, look inside the couch lining, every box, the entertainment center - anything he could have burrowed into. It all goes into the hall once its deemed to be snake free.

Well, he's not in the room. The room is EMPTY and he's not there.

So its time to review alternatives. The ceiling tiles are too heavy for him and besides, I don't think he could have gotten up there, so the only options are a) he crawled through the heating vents to any of the other rooms on that side of of the dorm (one long vent ran the length of the building, 20 rooms or so, or b) he crawled through a hole in the floor into the ceiling of the first floor - the men's bathroom was just below me and the security office was next to that.

I move everything back into the room. I decide to check option b first, and that night I go down to the men's room on the first floor and climb up into the ceiling with a flashlight and make sure he's not there.

So that mean's its option a. He's in the vents or, more likely, in someone else's room on the hall.

I then let all the guys in the other rooms, everyone but the geeks next door, know that Cope's on the loose. They all know that he's harmless and they're more likely to hurt him than he is to hurt them, so they all are cool with it and look through their rooms (not to the same level that I did, but I encouraged as much thoroughness as possible).

Well, no one finds him, so that leaves one of two possibilities: he's either in the vents or the geeks' room. There's simply no way I can tell these guys about him - we've gone to security over each other before (I would sometimes accidentally leave my stereo blasting in the early AM when they were just going to bed after they had kept me up all night, etc.). So I know they'll rat me out if I tell them, so I cross my fingers and hope for the best.

I figure Cope will get thirsty in a week or so and come out looking for a drink. But snakes can go for a while without food / water (I only fed him monthly, for instance). About 3 weeks passed.

I kind of stopped thinking about it so regularly after a while. I had left a bowl of water in the middle of the aquarium in the middle of the room in hopes he would come back, but never saw him in the course of the three weeks, and the water didn't disappear.

Well, one night I'm doing laundry over by the new racquetball courts. The easiest way back to my room was through a long hallway above the old racquetball courts, which deposits one at the very far end of the long hall I lived on, from my room.

I get through the door with my arms full of clean laundry, and just about start down the long hallway towards my room when I realize there's about 20 people around it - everyone who's ever worked security for the school, the head of security for the college, a couple cops, and a few guys from the hall. Nobody's looking my way but then one of the guys from the hall sees me and gives me a very discreet wave-off, so I spin around and go into hiding for an hour or so.

When I finally sneak back into the hall, everything's settled down, so I head for the room of the guy who waved me off, before. He and his roommate give me the scoop (this was at like 3 in the morning, mind you):

Apparently geek #1 who stayed on the bottom bunk had been crawling into bed at an early hour (for him) and when he crawls in, he feels something at his feet. Throws back his covers, sees Cope. Jumps so hard he hits his head on the top bunk and either faints or knocks himself out. Falls on the floor.

Geek #2 sees this, and flees the room, screaming bloody murder, leaving his buddy behind to be eaten by the snake of doom.

He runs down to security, they come running up, help Geek 1 out of the room, but no one will go near deathsnake.

The guys on the hall know he's harmless but nobody wants to admit knowing anything about the snake so they all just stand around saying nothing while security debates how best to kill Cope.

They end up calling all cars (cops, etc.) to weigh in on the decision, and fortunately one of the cops knows something about snakes and says it's a harmless one. That's about when someone indicated to security that there might be an aquarium in my room. So they go in there, find it, put him in it, take him down to the security office, and leave me a note, TYPED OUT (no joke) on a piece of scratch paper taped to my door.

Man I wish I still had that note. It said something about the owner of the aquarium needing to report to security immediately.

I check out security from the long end of the hall downstairs and there's still a bunch of people there waiting to see me show up, so I give them about another hour til things settle down (I did have laundry to fold, after all). Finally, I decide its time to face the music, head downstairs, and there's still 3 security guards and the smart cop.

They all inform me that yeah, I'm in HUGE trouble but its going to be up to the administration how to best deal with me, as stuff this big is out of their hands.

Then they start asking me all these questions like "why's he drinking so much water?" and "could he kill a small child?" etc..

I answer all the questions, fix the top of the aquarium for them, and then they keep him in the office that night and I have an 8am appointment with the Dean of Men.

I head down to the administration offices in the morning thinking "That's it, I'm toast, they are sending me home. And then Mom and Dad will kill me."

I'm waiting out in the hall for my sentencing and this one guy who worked for the administration but I was never sure what exactly he did, who always had a mustache and a bow-tie, walks by and looks at me grimly and just shakes his head in dismay over the low, low state I had sunk to.

Then I get called into the Dean's office. I'm waiting to hear the world "expelled" at any second. He informs me its a very serious violation, and that this isn't going to be treated lightly. He then informs me I'm going to have to get rid of the snake immediately.

Then he starts in asking me questions about the snake, just like the security guys - how long I've had him, how big he can get, is he dangerous, etc...really curious about it.

Then he dismisses me to go work on getting rid of the snake.

I'm thinking, for about 3 seconds, that I actually might get out of this thing, as we head towards the door of his office.

And he opens it, and Nancy Paxton is standing there. I think her official title was Boss of the College. The college president was basically a front man for the whole thing, while she methodically pulled the strings that made the puppets of that school dance. She maintained (and boasted in) her 80% rate - fully that many students would someday marry a fellow student of the institution.

She asks me if I was the young man with the snake.

I reply that I am.

She tells me what a big deal this is, and I apologize and grovel, basically the same thing that just happened with the Dean in his office.

Then SHE starts asking me the same set of questions. The Dean is so excited at this point that he starts answering her questions FOR me. I'm standing there in dumb disbelief.

I'm not really clear on how the conversations ended but I do remember walking out of there with both of them kind of shaking their heads in a comical awe at me like I was some mildly-famous visitor to the college, or something.

So I walk back, find a friend of a friend over at the next college-town over, who was happy to have a free pet snake (he was worth a good deal of cash by that point), and drive it over there that afternoon.

And that was the last I heard about it from anyone in the administration. No fine, no suspension, no call to my parents, nothing. In fact, it got me on a first name basis with a bunch of them that I wasn't very close to before.

And that's pretty much the story of my pet snake.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:01 PM on July 3, 2014 [37 favorites]

One of my earliest memories was when I was a kid we went to a picnic in on Bowen Island and the family having it had a sandbox. I asked my mom if we could take the lid of the sandbox and she asked the family and they said sure, but when the lid came off there was a nest of snakes inside. Luckily it was not this large. Then they showed us an Indiana Jones film.
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 1:04 PM on July 3, 2014

You go first.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:05 PM on July 3, 2014

jinx, SpaceWarp13!
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:05 PM on July 3, 2014

I found the most unsettling part to be when people were handling them, though I'm sure the swarming imagery will come back as I try to sleep.
Oh god that's hilarious how the mom gets the willies and her little girl apologizes for the wiggly snake.
Last summer at the seaside, I jumped away terrified from a little girl who was holding up a (non stinging) jellyfish and asking if I wanted to see it.
posted by manbagofmanifestdestiny at 1:20 PM on July 3, 2014

The really scary thing is the nearby gathering of three times as many badgers.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:38 PM on July 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

posted by PenDevil at 1:42 PM on July 3, 2014

Can any biologists comment on the non-territoriality of males despite the scarcity of females as depicted in this video?

Some good friends of mine do research on these snakes. As I understand it territoriality would require habitat (or territory...) available for the males. The geology and environment up there are such that there just aren't many locations available so all the snakes (more or less...) have to share the same locations.
posted by pwb503 at 1:44 PM on July 3, 2014

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope....

They're just garter snakes. You're more likely to be bitten by an actual garter.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:09 PM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, despite what the boy in the video said, sometimes garter snakes will bite ya. It's just that they are usually too small to get much of a grip, so nothing much happens. Now, the somewhat bigger non-venemous snakes (like king snakes) will bite, and because of a anti-clotting agent in their saliva, it might bleed a little more than you think. Plus, the shock of the snake striking you gives you a little adrenaline rush. But, as a boy collecting snakes from the wild, I would just let them bite me a few times…then they'd give up and become "pets" until I let them go again. Or until they got out of their cages, something Mom did not appreciate.
posted by kozad at 2:41 PM on July 3, 2014

You will never see a more wretched hive of squirming and ophidity than the snake dens of Manitoba.
posted by XMLicious at 2:50 PM on July 3, 2014

Wow, yeah. It makes it even more amazing that this is north of Winnipeg and Winnipeg is so fucking cold in the winter. This is an ophidian ley line or something.
posted by XMLicious at 2:58 PM on July 3, 2014

Unmentioned in the video is that garter snakes when frightened can release a powerful stinky oil from near their anus that smells like skunk. It was a lonely day at scout camp when I discovered this.
posted by srboisvert at 3:00 PM on July 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Garter snakes are cool other than the stink.

My mother taught sixth grade science for a lot of years. That meant whatever classroom pets she had came home over breaks. (her principal was scared to death of both snakes and small rodents so having classroom pets had several benefits since he wouldn't set foot in her classroom when there were critters)

Several times the pets spending winter break with us were garter snakes. Most memorably the big one - maybe an inch in diameter and a couple feet long. It got out of the cage over winter break and we couldn't find it anywhere. Mind you, we lived in Chicago and that winter was particularly cold and snowy. I had a cat but we figured if the cat had gotten the snake there would have been some evidence. Never did find any clue about where it went though.
posted by leslies at 3:51 PM on July 3, 2014

This is really cool! Thank you for posting it! Those snakes are adorable.
posted by bibliogrrl at 5:04 PM on July 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

ManitobaFACT: Manitobans do not use the expression 'sausage party' to describe social situations where the ratio of male attendees to female attendees is way out of wack. Rather:

"Hey man, You wanna go to Gerry's this weekend and have a couple wobbly-pops?"
"No way man, I went last week, it was a real fuckin Narcisse Snake Pit!"
"Fucken rights, man!"
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:46 PM on July 3, 2014

I've... seen things you people wouldn't believe... Mating snakes figuratively on fire off the edge of a sink hole. I watched scales glitter in the dark near the Narcisse Snake Pits. All those... moments... will be lost in time, like tears... in... rain. Time... to die...
posted by blue_beetle at 10:41 PM on July 3, 2014

I found the most unsettling part to be when people were handling them, though I'm sure the swarming imagery will come back as I try to sleep.

posted by manbagofmanifestdestiny at 3:20 PM on July 3 [+] [!]

In my converations with the rangers [docents?] they said they didn't like kids handling the snakes but they accept it as a necessery evil for preservation. Despite the video depiction you aren't supposed to handle the snakes. A lot of parents actually buy gloves for the kids so they can. I'm torn. I like for people to not be afraid of snakes but they aren't pets either.

There was one particular ranger who I spent almost a half hour talking to bothering. They had been there for a couple of decades and when I asked they said that the snakes have become much more docile and accepting of humans over the course of the last two decades - letting people pick them up as you see in the video.

I guess it's all to the good. Emphasis on guess.
posted by vapidave at 5:50 AM on July 4, 2014

When I was a kid growing up on Vancouver Island in the Sixties, it was snake heaven. I love snakes, and spent many happy hours catching them and trying to sneak them into the house (mostly my mom was a couple of steps ahead of me). I remember having U-shaped scars on the backs of my hands from the bites. You'd see dead ones all over the road. Which is likely the reason you won't see any these days. We spend a couple of weeks there every year, and I bet I've seen one garter snake in the last 10 years. Kind of sad, really.
posted by sneebler at 12:34 PM on July 4, 2014

I am surprised the way the kids were able to handle those snakes. In my experience, Garter Snakes have a bad temper and tend to bite when disturbed.

In my experience, any wild snake will be alarmed when you handle them. Garter snakes will at the very least do that thing where they open their mouth really wide in a way they think looks threatening but actually looks funny because they are garter snakes and are absolutely and completely harmless. I have been bitten by several garter snakes, and have only had two so much as break the skin - generally they would just sort of nom ineffectually on my hand.

As far as any mild venom they might have, there is almost no chance that will be delivered in a defense bite - it would be reserved exclusively for prey.

Unmentioned in the video is that garter snakes when frightened can release a powerful stinky oil from near their anus that smells like skunk.

There is a 98% chance that they will do this. And poop on you as well.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:31 PM on July 4, 2014

I went to a YMCA camp in Canada when I was 9. The buses let us off at the camp site, and a before we could even be assigned to our counselors, a boy found a snake and picked it up. The campers watching were torn as to whether he should hold it or not, but he bravely announced that it was "just a garter snake, you wussies!" Cut to two minutes later, the kid is crying with blood dripping down his arm from where the snake - garter or otherwise - bit his hand. I have no beef with snakes but ever since then I know not to mess with them.
posted by SassHat at 10:19 AM on July 9, 2014

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