The most widespread of all snake species in Massachusetts, the Eastern Garter Snake can frequently be spotted out sunning itself on rocks and logs in sunny forest clearings, grassy meadows, backyards, and in freshwater habitats.
While garter snakes are basically harmless, they may release an unpleasant-smelling secretion when they are handled so, as with all wildlife, it’s best to leave them to their business and admire them from afar. Snakes that are sunning may have just eaten, so handling them may cause them digestive problems. Conversely, snakes that are hiding may be getting ready to shed, which can affect their vision, so they may be more defensive if they cannot see well. It suffices to say that it’s better for both snakes and people if we can avoid harassing them by attempting to handle them.
Garters lack fangs or, strictly speaking, venom glands, although they do have a small amount of toxin in their saliva that is only dangerous for amphibians and other small prey animals. Far more interesting than its offensive capabilities is the snake’s chemical defense strategy: Not only are garter snakes resistant to naturally occurring poisons from their toxic prey (including newts and toads), but they can also retain the toxins in their bodies, thereby becoming toxic themselves and deterring potential predators. Amazing!
Every year in late spring and early summer, adult female turtles cross the roads of Massachusetts in search of nest sites. One of the biggest (literally) culprits is the Snapping Turtle.
Found in all sorts of water bodies, from rivers to lakes to marshes, the Snapping Turtle can grow up to 19” long. It has three ridges on its carapace (the top half of its shell), a spiky tail, and a decidedly “dinosaur-ish” look, with good reason—The first turtles appeared over 200 million years ago, making them even more ancient than their reptilian cousins, snakes and lizards.
Many people assume that something is wrong when a turtle is crossing the road. With best of intentions, they mistakenly attempt to return it to water, take it home, or take it somewhere that seems safer to release it. But the best thing to do is leave it alone or, if threatened by traffic, move it to the side of the road in the direction it was already heading. The turtle knows where it wants to go and may have been nesting in the same spot for many years—or even decades.
But remember, Snapping Turtles can be aggressive and have powerful jaws that can deliver a painful bite if threatened (possibly because their small lower shell or “plastron” leaves them vulnerable) and their neck can stretch the length of their shell. Never grab one by the tail—you could seriously injure the turtle. Simply give her space and let her mosey along on her way.