With the days getting short and nights dropping below zero, the snakes of Alberta could use a little help.
The Fort Saskatchewan area is home to two snake species, according to Alberta Conservation Association (ACA) biologist Kris Kendell. Red-sided garter snakes and plains garter snakes can both be spotted in the city, particularly in the springtime in the local river valley when the warm weather brings them slithering out of hiding.
Right now the city’s garter snakes, fattened from a summer of feeding, are heading for their hibernacula – that’s the technical term scientists use when they talk about winter snake dens. Hibernacula are underground, below the frost line, warm enough to keep cold-blooded reptiles safely sleeping until spring.
“These dens for garter snakes are actually fairly limited on the landscape,” Kendell said. “And so oftentimes a lot of garter snakes, a lot of snake species in general, will arrive at these locations in rather large numbers and all overwinter together in what we call a communal den. And so these dens can have just one species of snake or multiple species of snakes.”
The sometimes perilous move from summer feeding grounds to winter refuge can see snakes travelling many kilometres through local landscapes. Not all of the snakes will survive the journey.
“Unfortunately sometimes they can be run over by vehicles or even bicycles,” Kendell said.
Garter snakes face many other challenges on the landscape, mainly through habitat loss, Kendell added. Their populations are thought to be in decline in the province.
“Alberta's lost a lot of wetlands, which are important habitats for garter snakes to acquire their food and often destinations where they'll choose to give birth to their young.”
Unfortunately, Kendell said, not all people are tolerant of snakes. Although hibernacula are protected under the Alberta Wildlife Act, destruction of the communal winter dens is known to happen.
The ACA is asking people to let them know about any hibernacula they come across. The Alberta Snake Hibernaculum Inventory is an online portal run by the ACA aimed at collecting information about where snakes are spending their winters. The ACA is also asking volunteers to file reports about snake sightings in general, including roadkill incidents.
“Anyone that happens to encounter or observe a garter snake in the wild can submit that sighting to this portal,” Kendell said.
The online data submission form, available on the ACA website, asks for date and location of observations.
"And we have a really nifty Google map interactive function,” Kendell said. “So it makes it really easy for you to determine the location of your observation. You just simply click on the Google map and it automatically generates a coordinate for you.”
The ACA will share the collected data to a provincial wildlife database. Biologists will be able to use the information to better understand the distribution of different reptile species in the province, including garter snakes, as well as their den habitats.
"So it contributes to potential research, education and the management of garter snakes and other reptiles in the province."