Although some people would rarely react to the mention of snakes with an “aww”, you have got to admit this is rather cute news. Commonly thought to be solitary and cold creatures, snakes are widely considered unsocial, even amongst other reptiles. However, a new study suggests that their relationships with other serpents may, in fact, be more complex than we gave them credit for.
At Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, 40 young eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis), native to the Southeast and most of North America, were placed into an enclosure with four separate shelters in groups of 10. For eight days, comparative psychologist Noam Miller and his graduate student Morgan Skinner watched on as the snakes, uniquely marked with colored dots, slithered in and around the shelters.
Twice daily, the snake’s positions were recorded, the pen cleared of any odors, and then the reptiles placed back in different locations. Aside from the fact that the snakes seemed to actively seek out social interaction, huddling in groups of between three and eight, they were also found to routinely congregate with the same individuals. These “cliques” are “in some ways surprisingly similar to those of mammals, including humans,” Skinner told Science Magazine.
In fact, other animals have already been shown to have “close friends.” Flamingos keep the same friends for years (and actively avoid others), whilst vampire bats “up the stakes” of their friend-game by French kissing with mouthfuls of blood. But snakes have rarely been included in such studies because of the preconceived notion that they literally are “snakes” to each other.
As Skinner and Miller explain in their paper published in Behavioral and Sociobiology, “this bias is exacerbated by the fact that in some reptile species social interactions are hidden, due to their secretive nature, and that social communication is often conducted via invisible chemical cues.”
To understand this sparse avenue of research further, the duo also tested out the personalities of the snakes by evaluating their “boldness”. Both individually and within group scenarios, they measured the length of time snakes ventured outside of their safe shelters. The bolder explored the area, whilst the shyer remained inside. These individual differences ultimately impacted how they interacted with one another, though even the bolder snakes succumbed somewhat to the “group mentality” when clumped together, spending about 94 percent of the time in their safe zones.
This may be to their advantage however, as in the wild these groupings could protect them from prey and help retain heat and moisture. Although this study was only conducted in the laboratory setting, the authors suspect this social behavior occurs in nature as well as amongst other reptiles. Further, the discovery that snakes prefer some over others could help conservation efforts, they conclude, as relocating them in their “cliques” could prevent them from escaping from safe habitats.
Despite the scientists not knowing what causes these friendships between garter snakes, it seems that friends who slither together, stay together.