Putting the “SSS” in social

A tell-all on the secret lives of snakes

For many people, stumbling upon a group of snakes while on a walk would be pure nightmare fuel. But for researchers in the ever-evolving field of reptile behaviour, a snake pile could be the key to a breakthrough! 

The closer an animal’s behaviour is to humans’, the quicker we are to understand it. Some animals, like primates, share many of our behavioural traits and have easily recognizable social interactions. Others, like rats and dogs, live in proximity to humans and can be comfortably studied. Reptiles, on the other hand, can be hard to find, harder to understand, and hardest of all to relate to. Dr. Julia Riley is a herpetologist and professor at Mt. A, who has studied reptile sociality across three continents, and for over a decade. “As we move further away from animals that look like us and [that] use the same way of understanding the world around us, it gets harder to study their behaviour,” said Riley, adding that “a lot of humans are afraid of reptiles […] I think that fear, and the fact that they’re so alien to us really clouds our understanding of [them].”

To remedy this gap in our understanding, a research team led by Morgan Skinner, a PhD student from Wilfrid Laurier University, set out to learn more about the secret lives of snakes. The team monitored 40 juvenile garter snakes in their lab for months and conducted a set of tests to assess their social aggregation tendencies and their individual sociability and boldness. Think of it as an extreme version of a BuzzFeed personality quiz, but for snakes. Skinner and his team found that snakes were prone to spending time in shelters with large groups of their peers and that when exploring, they were likely to do so with others. This data directly contradicts the common assumption that snakes are non-social animals. 

Discovering the use of group exploration in snakes is surprising, and Skinner believes the behaviour may be “brought about by increased social contact due to communal denning.” Skinner goes on to emphasize that individual snakes showed different levels of boldness and sociability, saying, “garter snakes have social personalities. […] There are ‘introverts’ and ‘extroverts,’ and they are not all equally social.”

But why bother studying the behaviour of animals that are often so widely disliked? One benefit, Riley mentioned, is biological. “The social behaviour of an animal affects their population growth rate […] and the capacity […] to adapt to changing environments.” She emphasized that this is especially important as reptiles are “threatened and facing great extinction rates and are of conservation concern.” She added that there is a possibility for change in human perception, that “maybe we’ll make the general public be able to understand them a little more, have a little more empathy for them, and want to let them live in peace.”

Skinner shares this belief of a twofold benefit, hoping this research can change both scientific and social stances on snakes. “From a research perspective, […] social factors should be considered when testing and keeping garter snakes for research purposes,” he says. He speculates that the research also has conservation implications. “The more difficult it is to anthropomorphize an animal, the less likely we are to support its conservation. I hope that my research can help erode the false belief that snakes are non-social animals, and […] increase our willingness to conserve them.” 

As snake social behavioural research continues, both Skinner and Riley hope that the animals may gain a more positive societal perception. “I want people to learn that snakes aren’t scary,” says Skinner about his desired takeaway from the study, “I hope that by pointing out commonalities between snake behavior and the behavior of other animals, […] people [will] have more empathy for [them].” Riley thinks this work could change the public’s reactions to encountering a group of snakes, from one of fear and nightmare fuel to one of interest and respect, saying: “If we can talk about how reptiles are social, communicate that to the general public, it [could make] people think twice when they see a snake.”

For more information, check out ‘Aggregation and social interaction in garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)’ by Skinner and Miller (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-020-2827-0

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