Now for some nice news about snakes. According to scientists, the humble serpent’s age-old reputation as a liar, a traitor, and an untrustworthy cheat is not entirely justified. Snakes aren’t the self-interested arseholes they’re made out to be. A recent study suggests that they are, in fact, “surprisingly social”.
Researchers at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University placed four sets of 10 young eastern garter snakes—a species native to most of North America and parts of Central America—into a walled enclosure containing four shelters, Science Magazine reports. Each snake was marked with a coloured dot on its head, and a camera tracked their movements.
Twice a day, one of the researchers would take photos of the positions of the snakes, noting their groupings, before removing them, cleaning the enclosure and erasing any odours. The snakes would then be put back into the enclosure in different positions, and the camera would track whether they clustered together into the same groups as before.
Turns out the snakes were quite cliquey. Researchers observed that the reptiles repeatedly gathered in groups of three to eight—often consisting of the same individuals—in one of the four shelters. They appeared to be congregating in social circles and making friendships with other snakes.
“Our research demonstrates that these snakes actively seek out social interaction and prefer to join and remain with larger groups,” the researchers concluded. They further noted that “our work contributes to a sparse but growing body of literature on sociability in reptiles. This work is important for changing perceptions among the scientific community and the public as a whole.”
The researchers also tested each snake’s personality, measuring its “boldness” by putting it alone in a shelter and observing how much time it spent outside. Some were bold and ventured relatively far from the shelter, while others were shy and stayed inside. Specimens with more snakes in their shelter were less likely to leave, and generally when the snakes were in a group they tended to do what everyone else in that group did—regardless of their own personality.
There are striking consistencies here with the way people socially interact on a daily basis—and indeed, the researchers noted that the snakes’ social structures were “in some ways surprisingly similar to those of mammals, including humans.” They also noted that there are some pretty appealing benefits to hanging out in a group if you’re a snake.
For one, animals with the option of grouping together are typically better at retaining heat and moisture. Secondly, in the event of an attack, each member of the group stands a better chance of escaping than if they were alone. And finally, social snakes can learn from one another: watching their friends and knowing that it’s safe to go outside, for example.
“We demonstrate that the snakes actively seek social interaction, prefer to remain with larger aggregates, and associate non randomly with specific individuals or groups,” the researchers stated. “We show that their social interaction patterns are influenced by individual boldness, sociability, and age … [and] these results highlight the complexity of snake sociality.”