Social Snakes

May 27, 2020
SNAKE BUDDIES In a recent scientific study, common garter snakes, like these, developed friendships.
CHRISTINA PRINN—GETTY IMAGES

A long, scaly creature slithering alone through the grass—that’s how we usually picture a snake. But a new scientific study could change that image. Snakes can be long. And they’re certainly slithery. But they may not be the loners we thought they were.

Morgan Skinner and Noam Miller, the scientists who led the study, found that snakes actively search for other snakes to spend time with. Simply put, snakes have friends.

“Like us, they seek out social contacts,” Skinner told National Geographic.

Miller and Skinner did the study at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Canada. They published their findings last month, in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. Their study joins a growing body of research showing that friendships among animals could be more common than we thought.

The scientists conducted an experiment using 40 eastern garter snakes. This species is often found in the southeastern United States.

The snakes were tested for personality traits such as boldness and shyness. Scientists then put them into an enclosure, 10 at a time. The enclosure had four little house-like structures in it. For eight days, Miller and Skinner watched the snakes traveling from house to house. Occasionally, they removed a snake from the enclosure, then put it back in different a structure. The researchers noticed something interesting: No matter where they put the snakes, the creatures found a way to rejoin their “friends.”

Snakes “have sophisticated social cognition,” or understanding, Miller says. “They can tell others apart.”

“And they’re choosy about whom they socialize with,” Skinner adds.

Why would snakes need friends? It could be for protection. And it “may have nothing to do with the reasons humans have friends,” Miller says. In other words, it’s unlikely they’re looking for buddies to play video games with. It’d be hard to hold the controller without hands, anyway.

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