Given their reputation as solitary creatures that come together only to mate and hibernate, the notion of snakes hanging out in groups with their "best friends" may sound a little far-fetched. However, a recent study conducted by researchers from Canada's Wilfrid Laurier University asserts that the reptiles not only actively seek out socialization with their peers, but are also extremely particular about who they spend time with.
For the study, the team led by Ph.D. student Morgan Skinner and associate professor Dr. Noam Miller, selected 40 specimens of non-venomous garter snakes. Ten were from a single litter purchased from a snake breeder, while the remaining were captured from the wild. After marking each specimen with a speck of nontoxic color to allow for easy identification, the researchers placed ten snakes inside each of the four plastic shelters contained within a tabletop enclosure.
Skinner photographed each snake group twice a day before removing them from their shelters. After cleaning the areas thoroughly to rid them of any familiar smells, the reptiles were rearranged into different groups and returned to the enclosure. A camera mounted over the shelters allowed the scientists to capture the animals' movements every five seconds, 12 hours a day, for a total of eight days.
When Skinner and Miller analyzed the images, they found that regardless of where they were placed, the snakes always slithered back to their original "friends," forming groups of three or eight inside the small shelters. "They have sophisticated social cognition," Miller told National Geographic. "They can tell others apart."
The scientists, who published their findings in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, are not sure why the snakes seek out friendships. However, they believe the animals would not waste their energy forming bonds unless it were beneficial to them. Miller hypothesizes that the tendency for snake friends to curl up with one another probably helps retain moisture and heat in the wild. Being in groups may also help keep predators at bay.
Gordon Burghardt, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Tennessee, who was not involved in the research, says, "[The study] should help convince people that snakes aren't all cryptic loners, but have more social intelligence and a larger social repertoire than most of us realize."
Miller believes the research could help with reptile conservation efforts. Endangered snake species relocated to safer habitats often leave these areas, jeopardizing efforts to save them. Now, conservationists may be able to avoid that by transferring entire snake cohorts to the new location. Alternatively, they could also spray the new habitat with the species' scents to make transplants feel at "home."
Garter snakes are not the only reptiles that display human-like social behavior. Previous studies have found that male and female cottonmouth snakes often forage together for long periods of time, while rattlesnakes set up communal dens to look after each other's babies!
Resources: Nationalgeographic.com, livescience.com, sciencemag.org