Red Foxes have a very diverse diet – birds, small mammals, snakes, frogs, eggs, insects, fish, earthworms, berries, fruit — the list is endless and this diversity is part of the reason that foxes thrive in almost any habitat. However, the fox whose tracks I was following recently passed up a meaty meal – that of a Spotted Salamander. The story the tracks tell suggests that the fox dropped the salamander after unearthing it from its hibernaculum and carrying it some distance. It’s likely that it had detected the sticky white toxic liquid that Spotted Salamanders secrete from poison glands in their skin when they are threatened. Unfortunately, detection did not occur in time to save the salamander’s life. Either its experience with the fox and/or freezing temperatures killed the salamander, preventing it from going back into hibernation. (Note red fox tracks to right of salamander.)
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You can often tell whether a snake is active in the day (diurnal) or during the night (nocturnal) by looking at its eyes. Diurnal snakes, such as the pictured Common Gartersnake, typically have round pupils and moderate-sized eyes. Many nocturnal snakes have large eyes and many also have vertical, elliptical pupils. A round pupil is able to close tightly to a pinpoint opening, allowing a minimum amount of light to enter the eye on very bright days. In contrast, a vertical pupil can open wider than a round pupil to allow more light to enter the eye, a useful adaptation for night vision.
Many snakes, including this Common Gartersnake, use smell to track their prey. In the roof of a snake’s mouth are two openings, called the vomeronasal organ, also known as Jacobson’s organ. Snakes smell by sticking their forked tongue in the air, keeping it constantly moving while they collect particles (mostly pheromones) on it from the ground, air and water. Next they pull their tongue back into their mouth and insert it into their Jacobson’s organ (one fork in each opening). Then the particles are analyzed and the snake determines whether prey or a predator is in the vicinity.
12-8-10 Common Gartersnake
The Common Gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) is New England’s most common and widespread snake. It’s not unusual to find one that has been run over on the road, but rarely have I found a carcass of one in the woods, especially this late in the year. Gartersnakes usually are hibernating (often in groups) in rock crevices, rotting logs or holes dug by mammals by October or so. The warmer-than-usual fall certainly allowed for extended basking in the sun and the ability to find active earthworms later in the season. If you look closely you may see that this gartersnake has a blue tinge where it’s normally a greenish color. Yellow and blue pigments in a snake’s skin fuse to produce the green color in living snakes. After death, the yellow pigment breaks down very quickly, whereas the blue pigment is more stable and remains much longer. Gartersnakes that have been dead for a while can have bright blue dorsal and lateral stripes.
Most species of snakes lay eggs (oviparous), but some give birth to live young (viviparous), including the common gartersnake (Thamnophis sirtalis). Gartersnakes are born at this time of year, and are on their own from the moment of birth. The greatest number of gartersnakes to be born in a single litter is 98, but 14 – 40 is more typical. The common gartersnake in the accompanying photograph is a newborn, measuring 6 inches in length.