Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Death and the Blues

I know this garter snake looks alive, but in truth, it is deceased. I found it on the roadside last night while Toby and I were out for our walk. When I found it, it was only mostly dead, which, according to Miracle Max, means still partly alive.

Not seeing any visible injuries, I picked it up, hoping it was mostly alive, but aside from the tip of the tail twitching back and forth, the animal just lay there. I suspect the nerves were the only things still firing. Ever hopeful, I brought it home, but by then it had completely expired. Still, it was in fine shape for photographing, so I took several pics.

It seems that all of a sudden there are a lot of deceased snakes on the roads. I suspect the weather is ultimately the culprit. Although the days have been sunny and mild, no doubt in the woods it is cool, and for a reptile heat is necessary for mobility and survival (if you are too cold to move, you cannot hunt). So the snakes are probably slithering out onto the pavement, where the radiating heat of the day warms them right up; toasty warm.

Unfortunately for the snakes, though, the roads host traffic, and traffic doesn't look out for snakes.

Most of the deceased (and flattened) snakes I've found, all of which have been garter snakes, btw, have been a lovely shade of turquoise. This is odd, since garter snakes are not blue. I've often wondered why they change color in death, and I've finally found the answer.

If you look at a live garter snake, its scales are brown, yellow and green. There is a lot of variation on the theme, but these are the basic colors. Going back to kindergarten, we all know that green is made by mixing blue and yellow. Well, it turns out that the yellow pigments are not stable, so after death they readily break down and disappear. The result is that the blue pigments are now totally exposed, turning the snake blue in death.


Still, if you are out and about these days when the sun is baking the roadsides, please watch for sunning reptiles. Do your best not to run them over - they are important cogs in the wheels of our ecosystems.


  1. Green snakes turn blue where their skin is injured and take on an overall bluish tint when they've been dead for a bit. Thanks for ferrating out and sharing that info on the unstable yellow pigment!

  2. Your kidding! That is so cool about the snake pigment. Boy am I going to impress my friends with that info. Did you put the little snake in a jar with alcohol? It would be nice to keep. I'm sure as you look at it more you will discover more things or get more questions. Thanks for the great post!

  3. I'm sorry for that dear little snake, but how fascinating to learn about that color change. I hope not to witness it.

  4. Swampy - most of the data I could find used the Green Snake as a reference. We see green snakes so seldomly here - although we had a visitor see one last week and showed me a photo of it. I love green snakes - my favorite color and one of my favorite animals!

    Squirrel - I didn't preserve the snake. Nope, I tucked him into my compost bin.

    Woodswalker - I hope you never have to run into a dead snake, too, but I wouldn't count on it!

  5. That is interesting about the colour. I feel sad for the snake though. Any roadkill is sad. We see lots of raccoons around here. They have such lively personalities, its terrible to see them stilled.

  6. thanks for satisfying our curiosity about that blue color - so in a way, it is like what happens to the leaves in the fall, the underlying color is revealed!
    It's sad finding creatures alongside the road. Last Saturday I spent a few hours looking for snapping turtles in Dunham's Bay (none showed themselves), only to find one dead on the road, right in front of where I live. Some people just drive too darn fast on small roads and don't care what gets in the way.