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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.

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Animals
Dogs Rescued After Hurricane Maria Are Available to Adopt in New York
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Dozens of dogs displaced by Hurricane Maria last month are now closer to having happy endings to their stories. As Mashable reports, 53 dogs flown out of Puerto Rico by The Sato Project have been put up for adoption in shelters around the U.S., with 28 of the rescues now available through a shelter in New York City.

The new batch of dogs looking for forever homes is in addition to the 60 dogs retrieved by The Sato Project earlier this month. According to the local animal rescue group, Puerto Rico was home to about 500,000 stray dogs before the historic storm made landfall in September. The animals being shuttled from the devastated island and into the U.S. via charter plane are a mix of feral dogs, abandoned dogs, and dogs that were surrendered to local shelters by families unable to care for them post-Maria.

The Sato Project, which worked to tackle Puerto Rico's stray dog problem before the disaster, wrote that in light of the storm they would be "mobilizing to provide supplies and support to our team on the ground in Puerto Rico, and to transport as many dogs as we can to safety in the coming days and weeks."

Aspiring pet owners looking to take in a four-legged survivor will have the best luck at the no-kill shelter Animal Haven in Manhattan's Lower East Side. There, dozens of dogs who made the trip from the U.S. territory are anxiously waiting to meet their new families. And if you don't live in the New York City area, you can check out The Sato Project's list of adoptable pets around the country.

Looking for ways to help Puerto Rico that don't involve adding a new member to the family? Here are some organizations doing recovery work on the island and ways you can support them.

[h/t Mashable]

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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