14 June 2012


It is always exciting to see potential predators in or around our field sites. Snakes- rattlers, gophers, coachwhips and others usually leave behind only their sinuous tracks left from nightly excursions... but very rarely we are fortunate enough to witness these symbol-laden ophidians. Earlier this season, each of my field assistants was fortunate enough to glimpse the flash of a snake. Isaiah saw a dark black s stretch across his path in the first week we were out at White Sands... we never found out what species the creature was. Last week, Mikki and Jackie saw what they later confirmed was a very large coachwhip. I was a little disappointed that I had never seen a snake out at White Sands (in all my years- I only ever saw rattlers and racers in our dark soils sites and on the nearby lava flow). Finally, the overcast skies tempted out two of our legless friends...

First, the most beautiful snake I have ever seen, and the only rattler I have viewed atop white gypsum sand... coiled into a ball the size of my fist, and quietly curled in the shade of a bush (mental note to not go digging through said bushes for lizards)... the smallest rattlesnake I have ever seen. Unfortunately, we did not have a camera ready for a photograph, so I was forced to do as the Naturalists of old and make a quick sketch from memory:
Mystery Rattler. 
I have not been able to find and identify this snake in any field guide or online image source. Most rattlers, it seems, have a light base colour with darker diamonds or patches along their dorsal line. My snake had the deepest black-green pigment with bright cream splotches that seemed to almost glow in the cloudy day. The snake was small and probably a juvenile, but she quickly showed her namesake rattle, and without a sound or shake (despite my 'animated' sketch) slithered silently into the brush.

And second... a less exciting, but far easier to photograph... gopher snake was the 'victim' of many naturalist paparazzi outside the White Sands National Monument visitor centre. At first coiled up under a yucca shrub, she quickly became impatient and relocated across the path to another larger and more private shrub. Although I nearly treaded on her during her short trek, I was able to snap some shots of this gorgeous creature:

Snakes aside, we have had a busy day, and will again tomorrow as we are leading full-day lizard ecology and evolution outreach programs for children in the Alamogordo area. I'll devote an entire post to our exciting kids-days so stay tuned!
Until then, goodnight serpents!
-S. Des Roches

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