Snakes mate on display at Narcisse pits for 1 more week

It could be the last chance for visitors to catch a unique mating phenomenon at Narcisse, where thousands of garter snakes are emerging from limestone dens.

Snakes rub noses, quiver to attract mates during busy mating period in Manitoba's Narcisse snake pits

Tens of thousands of red-sided garter snakes take part in the frenzied mating ritual, later dispersing into nearby marshes and aspen-parkland forests for the summer. (Katerina Tefft)

Sure, hanging out with thousands of snakes knotted in messy "mating balls" may not be everyone's idea of a good time, but Manitoba Conservation officials say there's only about a week left to catch the unique phenomenon in Narcisse, Man.

Dave Roberts, a wildlife land and habitat specialist with Manitoba Conservation (also known as the resident "snake guy"), said the red-sided garter snakes will likely leave the dens for the summer feeding areas by the middle of next week.

After spending the winter underground, the snakes emerge from their dens at this time of year to mate. And it gets a little hot and steamy. 
A young boy handles a red-sided garter snake near one of the snake dens. (Louis-Philippe LeBlanc)

"They start this process of courting where you literally have hundreds of males pursuing a female," said Roberts. "They rub their chins against her back. They quiver, and they just generally try to induce her to mate and eventually when she gives up resisting one lucky male that is in the right place at the right time gets the opportunity to breed with her."

Visitors could see a few thousand snakes at the dens this weekend, he said.

"It's not often that you get the opportunity to get up close and personal with an actual wild animal like a snake," said Roberts. 

"It's just a spectacle to see. There's no other place in the world like it, so it's really interesting we have it here in Manitoba," said Rob Vendramelli with the Manitoba Herpetocultural Society.

The society has volunteers at the dens on weekends to speak to people about the phenomenon from across the country and as far away as Brazil, Germany and Australia.

"Some people are not happy to be there," said Vendramelli, "In busy years, when you're standing at the dens, if you stop moving, I mean, you'll have snakes crawling over your shoes and sometimes you really got to watch where you step. The snakes are everywhere."

Their next stop for the snakes will be nearby farmers' fields and wetlands, which have a bounty of frogs to chow down on over the summer.   

"They're under a very tight biological timetable," said Roberts, "They have to feed enough during the summer time to put on enough fat to survive the 6 months that they are underground in the winter."

He added, "We think of them as very simple animals, but the reality is, in order for them to survive they employ many unique and interesting adaptations." 


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