In this Earth and Beyond program, host and producer Robin Song tackles the question: ARE there snakes in Alaska?
Recently a sentence in an email from a professional birder challenged a long-held belief for this Alaskan. Jim Stevenson leads birding tour groups all over the Americas, and earlier this year he was in Alaska. He sends wonderful photos of the birds he encounters, and sometimes includes other wildlife. One photo features an adult Bald Eagle perched on the edge of a cliff above the holes of Rough-winged Swallow nests, and at the end of the paragraph describing how the presence of the eagle may keep predators away, was the following sentence: “There are snakes in Alaska, contrary to certain unnamed sources, but they reside well to the southeast, near the coastal Canadian border.” I stared at that sentence in disbelief. I decided to investigate.
When I came to Alaska in August of 1980, I fell in love with the North Country and decided to make it my home. I started reading about Alaska, learning about everything that interested me- particularly its natural history. In none of the many books I devoured- and in none of the countless magazine articles I read- did I find any reference to there being snakes in Alaska. To the contrary- I found lists of what Alaska didn’t have, including skunks, scorpions, raccoons, fleas, ticks, lizards, bobcats, penguins, etc. On all of these lists snakes were included.
I turned to modern technology and went to the Internet and googled snakes in Alaska. Several references turned up, sending me to different sites about snakes. Finally I found an article about a snake species that may be found in southeast Alaska- the Common Garter Snake. This is what I read:
“The Garter snake is a Colubrid snake genus common across North America, ranging from Alaska and Canada to Central America. It is the single most widely distributed genus of reptile in North America.
The common garter snake is the only species of snake to be found in Alaska, and is one of the northernmost species of snake in the world, possibly second only to the Crossed Viper. The genus is so far-ranging due to its unparticular diet and adaptability to different biomes and landforms, with varying proximity to water. Northern populations hibernate in larger groups than southern ones.
Garter snakes, like all snakes, are carnivorous. Their diet consists of almost any creature that they are capable of overpowering: slugs, earthworms, leeches, lizards, amphibians, birds, fish, toads, and rodents. When living near the water, they will eat other aquatic animals. Food is swallowed whole. They often adapt to eating whatever they can find, and whenever, because food can be scarce or abundant. Although they feed mostly upon live animals, they will sometimes eat eggs.
If disturbed, a garter snake may coil and strike, but typically it will hide its head and flail its tail. These snakes will also discharge a malodorous, musky-scented secretion from a gland near the end of the tail. They often use these techniques to escape when ensnared by a predator. They will also slither into the water to escape a predator on land. Hawks, crows, raccoons, crayfish and other snakes will eat garter snakes, with even shrews and frogs eating the juveniles.
Being heterothermic, like all reptiles, garter snakes bask in the sun to regulate their body temperature. During hibernation, garter snakes typically occupy large, communal sites called hibernacula.
Garter snakes give birth to live young. Gestation is two to three months in most species. As few as 3 or as many as 80 snakes are born in a single litter. The young are independent upon birth. On record, the greatest number of garter snakes to be born in a single litter is 98.
Garter snakes were long thought to be nonvenomous, but recent discoveries have revealed that they do in fact produce a mild neurotoxic venom. Garter snakes cannot kill humans with the small amount of venom they produce, which is comparatively mild, and they also lack an effective means of delivering it. The venom is spread into wounds through a chewing action.”
Though it sounded like this was a definitive article, I did find another one listed that was to the contrary: In the field handbook: “Amphibians and Reptiles of Alaska”, by S. O. MacDonald, I read the following:
“The occurrence of the garter snake in southeastern Alaska has yet to be validated. Hodge (1976) reported several sightings of snakes on the banks of the Taku and Stikine rivers inside Alaska. A garter snake specimen- supposedly collected along the Stikine River- was apparently deposited in the old Territorial Museum (now the State Museum) in Juneau (or the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks, according to Waters, 1992), but was subsequently lost. All further attempts to locate this specimen or to document the presence of garter snakes anywhere in the region have been unsuccessful.
The valleys of the Stikine River and the Taku River (and perhaps Unuk River) could potentially allow snakes access to the coast from interior British Columbia, however, it remains unclear if natural populations of garter snakes even occur upriver in these drainages. The herpetofauna of northwestern British Columbia is poorly known. A preliminary search for garter snake records from major drainages that flow into coastal Alaska has come up negative. Furthermore, a resident of Telegraph Creek, B.C., stated that he could not recall anyone ever seeing a snake in that area. The Common Garter Snake has been reported north of Terrace, B.C., in the watersheds of the Nass and Skeena rivers, and along the eastern side of the province as far north as the Peace River District. The Western Terrestrial Garter Snake is found along the B.C. coast, including Vancouver Island, as far north as the Skeena River Basin, and east of the Rockies as far north as the Peace River District.”
And there you have it. One article stating that there are indeed garter snakes in Alaska (which I suspect Jim Stevenson read), and the other stating that sightings of garter snakes in Alaska have not been validated. Alaska Fish & Game is probably not going to list snakes in Alaska until there has been validation. With more people settling in the North Country year after year, there may come a time when someone crosses paths with a garter snake, if there is one to be found. It may be just a matter of time. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to wait until there is a substantiated report before I add snakes to my list of Alaskan species.
I love snakes, myself, having been introduced to them as a kid by my amateur naturalist father, who brought home a ring-necked snake to our flat in San Francisco. She was part of our on-going education to the wonders of the natural world, and my brother and I kept her fed and comfortable for a week, then let her go back to the wilds. I was hooked. Several years later, living in Sebastopol, I would capture garter and ring-necks out in the apple orchards, keep them for a short while to study them, then turn them loose. Mother gifted me with a lovely lime-green tree snake, which I adored. So I was disappointed to learn that Alaska has no snakes. But now I am hopeful. It’s possible the hardy garter snake, which hibernates and eats just about anything, could be surviving in Southeast. What do you think?