Curious Nature: Snakes are nature’s misunderstood wonders (column) | VailDaily.com

Curious Nature: Snakes are nature’s misunderstood wonders (column)

Tessa Cafritz
Curious Nature

Gopher snakes like this one are common on the Western Slope, and while they are harmless, they will mimic the sounds and actions of a rattlesnake to scare away potential predators.

What is your first reaction to seeing a snake? Most will run or become startled, but I encourage you to admire these creatures from a safe distance.

First, snakes are vital to the functionality of our greater environment and food webs. They do this by acting as some of Colorado's top predators. But don't worry; they are not interested in eating you or your pets.

Snakes generally prefer smaller mammals such as voles and field mice — animals that would proliferate if gone unchecked by our snake allies. Snakes also help us in fighting disease. For instance, The University of Maryland credits a decline in cases of Lyme disease to the fact that snakes consume infected rodents but do not become infected themselves by the disease. Conversely, areas where snake numbers have drastically declined due to human killings have experienced an increase in sicknesses.

Snakes do not rely heavily on eyesight (they cannot see far distances) or hearing (they lack outer ears) but, rather, accomplish predation through smell and touch. Snakes will use their tongues to smell, which is why they stick them out so much. A snake's tongue only has a few taste buds, and it is used to transfer molecules from the air to a snake's Jacobson's organ.

The Jacobson's organ is located by the roof of a snake's mouth, and it contains hundreds of nerve endings that are extremely sensitive to odors. A snake will stick its tongue out and collect a bunch of smelly molecules and then put its tongue back in and up against its Jacobson's organ. This interaction allows snakes to follow a scent. Snakes have forked tongues so they can figure out the exact direction (left, right, center) of a certain odor.

Snakes also feel vibrations through their scales. By absorbing the vibrations around them, snakes can gain an idea of the size or speed of an animal and respond accordingly. Most of the time, this involves fleeing and hiding.

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There are about 28 different snake species in Colorado, and only three are venomous. (Side note: Snakes and other animals that inject venom are venomous, while organisms that will harm an individual once consumed, like mushrooms, are poisonous.) The only species that can be harmful to humans is the rattlesnake — the western rattlesnake, midget faded rattlesnake and the massasauga — so you will have an audible warning if you get too close to one.

Many of the nonvenomous snakes here, such as the common king snake, eat venomous snakes and will not feel the impacts of the venom, so they help keep those populations in check. In Vail, you will mostly see wandering garter snakes. These are the only snakes found above 8,000 feet and can live in altitudes up to 13,000 feet. They inhabit areas around water because they prefer moist soil to moderate their body temperature.

Only ranging 20 to 40 inches in size, these tiny critters are nothing to be afraid of. They eat a variety of insects, eggs and small animals, especially rodents. They are also among the 30 percent of snake species that give live birth rather than laying eggs.

I encourage you to appreciate snakes for how important and incredible they are and become familiar with all of Colorado's amazing native species.

Tessa Cafritz is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science center. She has always had an appreciation for all walks of life and recently grew a special love for those that slither.