The snakes of Narcisse are one of the most fascinating sights in the natural world. Unless you are squeamish.
In that case, you probably don’t want to make the trek to Narcisse, Manitoba, Canada. But thousands of others do each year to see the world’s largest concentration of red-sided garter snakes. Tens of thousands of snakes, some estimates put the number at 75,000, slither above ground en masse to the glee of onlookers.
Each spring, for just a few weeks from late April through May, the snakes emerge from their winter dens at this site about 130 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, looking for mates. The females are easily outnumbered by the males by a ratio of at least 100 to one.
The frenzy often results in mating balls; a tangle of snakes all vying for the attention of the few females. Visitors often see the snakes tumble down rock walls to the floor of their limestone snake pits, only to climb back up looking for some more action.
The snakes are rather docile, even oblivious to visitors, who are permitted to gently handle them.
But be careful not to step on them. Over the weekend, they were moving throughout the tall warm grass outside the dens and along sections of the 3-kilometre trail that connects four dens.
After a few weeks of this mating ritual, the snakes slither to marsh land up to 20 kilometres away for the summer.
But each fall the snakes return to their dens. The first snakes know the way back from a chemical message marking the trail.
“Part of the message left by older snakes in the autumn includes an ‘aggregation cue,'” guides explain. “Generally snakes are the least social of of all reptiles. But the red-sided garter snakes in this area have evolved to congregate at winter den sites.”
Fall is also a good time for snake viewing since they remain active above ground until cool, wet autumn weather drives them underground into the cracks and crevasses of the limestone bedrock below the frozen ground.
As many as 20,000 snakes squeeze themselves into a single den.
Not grossed out? Then, you won’t be alarmed when a stranger asks if you want to pet their snake.