See the World's Largest Congregation of Snakes at This Spot in Manitoba

Canada usually seems like such a non-scary place—the pristine lakes, the gentle manners, the political tolerance, the free-flowing sorrys. It’s not exactly a place you’d think would be teeming with snakes just below the surface. And that’s true as long as you don’t hang out in Narcisse, Manitoba.

Every spring and autumn, the largest congregation of snakes anywhere in the world is found in this area, drawing visitors from across the globe. For between one and three weeks at a particular spot along Highway 17, tens of thousands of red-sided garter snakes make their way above ground from inside the fissures in the limestone, looking for mates. They congregate in rocky pits, weaving together to form vast, living, moving tapestries of snakes that can be as wide as 20 feet across. The mass of snakes is clearly audible, between the hissing and the sound of scales rubbing together.

The region’s geology is to blame for the snake jamboree. Because the winter temperatures in the Interlake area of Manitoba can drop to almost -50 °F, the limestone in the ground tends to freeze, crack, and fill with underground water, which erodes the stone and causes it to collapse, forming caverns and sinkholes. Cold-blooded snakes then move into these caverns and make them their dens, where they can hide out below the frost line when the winter kicks in. There is, however, a limited number of viable dens, so the snakes in the area tend to flock to a single location.

J Hazard via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

When they’re finished with their business in the spring, the garters split from their dens along the highway to nearby wetlands for the summer to bask in the sunshine, and then return to Narcisse in the fall, to slither back underground and do it all over again.

Because of the sheer number of snakes involved here—we’re talking as many as 50,000—the mating process can get a little tricky. Garter snakes use pheromones for this purpose, but sometimes male garters will produce both male and female pheromones in an effort to confuse other males into trying to mate with them—an attempt to borrow some of the other snake’s body heat, which is major attraction when you’ve been hibernating in the frozen ground for months. Another way for a male garter to locate a female (and warm up) is by joining what’s called a mating ball: a tangle of males surrounding a lady snake, as many as a hundred of them, all vying to get lucky. As Bob Mason, chair of the biology program at Oregon State University, said in a National Geographic video, it’s like “a sea of living spaghetti” in a sink hole that “might be the size of the average person’s living room.”

You wouldn’t know it from looking at this spectacle, but there was a time when the red-sided garter population in the area was in danger. In 1999, a one-two punch of inclement weather and the snakes’ habit of trying to cross the highway meant that tens of thousands of them were meeting untimely deaths before they could reproduce. The 1999 installation of 15-centimeter tunnels that run under the highway—along with 1-foot-high snow fences that corralled the snakes into the tunnels—improved the situation dramatically, as did seasonal signs that warn motorists to drive slowly when they pass the dens, lest they crush any runaway garters. Although snakes still manage to crawl under the fences sometimes, the number that die on the road every year is now under a thousand.

There are four different snake dens at this spot, and the site is well-equipped for visitors, replete with a walking trail to connect the dens, viewing platforms, and public restrooms. Garter snakes are harmless to humans and have a reputation for being docile, so much that children can safely handle them (a good thing, as there are always a few wriggling around on the ground outside the dens). As such, the Narcisse Snake Dens have become a major draw for day-tripping families—especially because the amorous snakes like to make their vernal debut around Mother’s Day. How appropriate.

NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop

Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]


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