Narcisse snake dens a wonder of the natural world
After a winter underground in Manitoba’s Interlake, an entire reptile community has emerged.
A flurry of activity at Narcisse Snake Dens - a phenomenon that only happens four weeks out of the year - draws people from all over the world.
Travel writer Robin Esrock is seeing it for the first time.
"Snakes are very misunderstood. I mean look at this guy, he's cute, curious, he's not slimy, he's silky," said Esrock said while holding one of the snakes in his hand on Friday.
While most come to snap a picture of the tens of thousands of snakes all knotted into a ball, Professor Bob Mason came here to learn what's going on inside the snakes during mating season.
“It's really one of the natural wonders of the world right here," said the department of integrated biology faculty member at Oregon State University.
He said the den is a living laboratory for him and his team of researchers.
Mason has been coming to Narcisse for 33 years, looking to unlock scientific secrets, and he's had some success.
"We identified the first pheromone in a reptile, so these little garter snakes were the first ones in reptiles to use them, even though all species of reptiles use them to one degree of another."
Mason says red sided garter snakes are simple, primitive animals that are highly adapted to their environment, making them a perfect specimen for basic scientific research.
"People will read the work that we do, and others, and then that informs the kind of work that goes on in applied studies in humans and even into medicine."
Mason’s team is interested in how females are able to store sperm at body temperature for years at a time.
"We go to great expense and trouble to store sperm in liquid nitrogen, and then you thaw it out, and there's in-vitro fertilization… and yet the snakes are able to do this just at body temperature."
They’re also studying how injured snakes survive near-fatal attacks from predators like crows and magpies.
"These snakes seem to be highly resistant to infections, so we are looking at their immune functioning."
Mason can easily walk up to a group of snakes and pinpoint their behaviour.
During spring time, Mason said multiple males will 'court' females. The much larger females give off that pheromone he discovered, and the males search for it by rubbing their chins on the female’s back, forming a ball as they look to mate.
When you get tens of thousands of the same species in one spot, like at Narcisse, Mason says the sight of it all is totally unique to Manitoba.
Tourists are encouraged to interact with the snakes, who are easily spotted along walking paths, and fairly easy to pick up.
Esrock said a visit to Narcisse in spring is a trip he can now cross off his bucket list.
"You can't do it anywhere else in the world. It's a great story, something you won't forget, and it's something everybody can actually do."