Good evening snakeaholics, I have the pleasure to welcome you to my first blog post- no big deal perhaps, but you have no idea how excited I am while writing this right now. Since I am new at this, I decided to draw from, and build on, my personal experiences to present a few conservation topics tonight.
I took the picture above ten years ago, most likely on a hot summer day spent on the beach in Rivoltella del Garda, a few kilometers from home. Unbeknownst to surprisingly many in the area, the lake around here is teeming with snakes- which didn’t take me long to notice, even as a kid. In fact, I still vividly remember the moment I caught my first one- it was a juvenile, barely 20 cm long, and I myself was 7 years of age. I set it free shortly after, of course- however, I was ecstatic to identify that most fascinating of creatures once I got back home. In the end, I finally found out what it was- Natrix tessellata. Common name: dice snake.
From that moment on, every summer I would spend days on end searching for snakes in crevices and murky water- much to my mother’s annoyance, might I add (sorry mom). In fact, the dice snake is largely aquatic, thriving in still and running water alike from Italy all the way to Central Asia. A relatively small species (60 cm for males, 80-100 for females), this fish-eating snake owes its common name to the pattern of small, dark spots it sports on its scales (vaguely resembling the numbers on a die… Apparently). To North American readers, this snake might well bear a striking resemblance to local water snakes of the genus Nerodia, to which Natrix can be said to be a European counterpart- oh, evolution, you are so strangely repetitive sometimes. Indeed, one may think that after a few encounters, this animal would become somewhat “boring”- after all, it is so common and doesn’t exactly stand out in terms of size, color, or habits. Fair enough, I’ll give you that. However, why does any of this matter in the first place?
A few months ago, I read an article written by herpetologist Dr. Sean Graham, who criticized a widespread phenomenon in the herping community- namely, the obsession for “lifers”. By “lifer” I mean the first individual of a particular species that a herper encounters in the wild- most certainly a unique experience, pretty much incomparable if you ask me (yes, it feels even better than an orgasm sometimes). However, as Dr. Graham aptly argues, an excessive focus on finding lifers would turn herping into a mere process of ticking species off a list, only to forget about them and move on to the next lifer.
Besides, lifers are obviously even more sought after when it comes to rare species- which (again coming from Dr. Graham’s piece, which I found incredibly instructive) should encourage herpers to adopt a more “research-oriented” mindset, so to say. That is, documenting occurrences on a regular basis and over an extended time period, turning herping just for fun (which, don’t get me wrong, is more than fine) into citizen science. Such data can be precious for research, even if collected by non-scientists and/or for common species.
My lifer dice snake was the criminally cute juvenile I caught back 15 years ago. I never got tired of herping for dice snakes, ever since. In all honesty, I can say with reasonable confidence that you do get “used” to a species once you encounter it literally every time you set out. However, this can in itself become a plus- detailed documentation of occurrences and movement patterns of a population (no matter how small) can shed light on the biology and ecology of that particular animal. Perhaps, the thought of actively contributing to the advancement of science might even match the feeling of finding a lifer. In hindsight, I wish I had kept records of all the dice snakes I captured in that particular site from that day to my teenage years. Considering how much I still have to learn, it is not my intention at all to be judgmental with this piece. I just hope none of you will make the same mistake. The di(c)e is cast, I guess. Considering how much I still have to learn, it is not my intention at all to be judgmental with this piece. I just hope none of you will make the same mistake.
Link to Dr. Graham’s article: https://livingalongsidewildlife.com/?p=747