Snakes at the Lake

I’ve done a variety of things in my life as a job. Fast food employee, warehouse worker, grocery store shelf stocker, golf caddy, corn detasseler. And, this past week, I pursued gainful employment as a snake catcher. On the islands out in Lake Erie (of which there are a dozen or more, ranging from very small to moderately large), there are garter snakes. This is the same innocuous and handsome species that occurs throughout much of North America, the eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). The especially interesting thing about the Lake Erie garter snakes is that there is a color variant in many areas in and around the lake that is all black (melanistic, see photo).

Melanistic eastern garter snake.
Melanistic eastern garter snake.

Riley Moreau (’20) and I were catching these garter snakes to get DNA samples so we could work in the lab this fall to assess genetic differences among the color morphs, islands and other quantities that one can estimate with modern genetic tools. We found garter snakes on all islands we visited but one. On Middle Bass Island, we had spent about five hours searching with only one snake to show for it and then in the last ten minutes before our ferry departed we caught five more. When it rains, it pours.