Winter in Minnesota has put an icy grip across all of the landscape. Those organisms who cannot leave must find ways to overcome the long cold winters. Trees enter a dormant stage, shedding their sensitive leaves until the temperatures rise above freezing. Other plants die-off completely leaving the success of their species to the seeds they produced as their last dying act. Mammals of all kinds hibernate or enter a dormant state to conserve energy. Unlike the mammals the reptiles and amphibians are more at the mercy of the elements. They are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and are unable to maintain their body temperature above the ambient temperature of the air or ground. This means that winter, for them, begins at the first frost and cool day, often before the first snow ever flies.
Reptiles and amphibians have incredible adaptations to survive the cold. Snapping Turtles bury themselves in the mud and stop breathing entirely. They absorb all the oxygen they need through a special membrane in, of all places, their rear-end. Tree-frogs saturate their blood with the amphibian equivalent of anti-freeze. This allows the frog to freeze completely solid but prevent the damaging ice crystals from forming. Snakes congregate in hibernaculums, special places where multiple species of snake mass in the hundreds or thousands to spend the winter. Hibernaculums allow the snakes to generate enough energy between the mass of bodies to prevent the probing fingers of frost from killing the whole populations. Hibernaculums of garter snakes have been found also include rattle snakes among other species sharing the space for winter.
Red Bellied Snakes are among the smallest snakes in Minnesota. Adults are usually less than a foot long. Their small stature and reclusive nature also make them challenging to find in their natural habitat. I usually only see the twisted bodies of dead red-bellies along the side of trails and road as victims of bikes, feet or tires. The dead snake were more than likely sunning their small bodies on the heat of the trail. This snake is only the fourth time I have seen one alive, and this is a small one at that!
Red Belly Snakes prey on small invertebrates that they find in meadows and grassy areas. They get their name from the bright coppery-red belly on their underside.
This snake was a juvenile and true to their reputation it was completely docile when handled. The warm spring sun was all this snake needed to get moving. Two days after these pictures were taken it snowed three inches. This snake is patiently waiting for spring to make its final return, and so am I.
Up Next: Breeding Bonanza or Frog Sex Party