Someone's always gonna have a bad time at an orgy. And red-sided garter snakes are no exception.
The mating ritual of Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis, a subspecies of common garter snake, is a hedonistic bacchanal of wriggling bodies and horny desperation. Each spring, they emerge en masse to reproduce—gathering in "mating balls" that can persist for days. (The "world's largest" garter snake orgy, located in Manitoba, Canada, contained an estimated 75,000 individuals.)
When you have this many players, some collateral damage is expected. But a new study claims that mating can actually shorten the lives of male red-sided garter snakes. According to an international team of scientists, whose findings were published today in the journal Proceedings B, the stress of days-long sex can inflict damage on a cellular level, causing males to die earlier and worse for the wear.
Mating is energy expensive for both male and female snakes. But while males tend to go all out—not eating, and remaining at the orgy site for up to 21 days—females, the authors wrote, "prioritize self-maintenance."
"The relationship between body condition and age differed strikingly between sexes, with females maintaining their body condition with age, while condition decreased with age in males," the study said.
Researchers, led by staff at the University of Sydney, analyzed four months of data from a mating site in Manitoba. They also measured snakes' "telomere length," which they allege is a significant biomarker of aging. Telomeres are genetic structures found at the tips of chromosomes, and have been likened to protective caps for DNA material. Their shortening has been associated with aging in both humans and garter snakes.
Males, the study found, possessed shortened telomeres compared to their female counterparts. The authors suspect the rigors of mating are to blame. Females usually left the orgy after a few days, and as a result, were better at repairing cellular damage in their bodies, according to the study. Whereas males were primarily concerned with reproductive success, no matter the physical cost.
But mating swarms can be risky, even in the short-term. As many as a hundred males can attempt to inseminate a single female. And it's not like snakes use safewords.
"Congregating for mass breeding events carries some risk for garter snakes," David Steen, a herpetologist and assistant research professor at Auburn University who was not affiliated with the study, told me.
"Predators may find that the distracted snakes are easy prey. A number of snakes may also suffocate."
Now that sounds like the tail end of a deal.