Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Deacon. Deacon Wonders, “What country has the most snakes?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Deacon!
Do you love animals? If you're like most kids, you probably love to play with a frisky, fuzzy puppy. You might also like to cuddle with a couple of cute kittens. If you travel to a fair or a petting zoo, there's nothing quite like some quality time with sheep, goats, bunnies, and llamas.
Some kids are fascinated by snakes. They love to see them in the wild and, as long as they're not venomous, they love to pick them up and play with them. Other kids fear snakes and won't touch them with a 10-foot pole.
While all those places are sure to have plenty of snakes, you'll find the largest gathering of snakes in one spot in one of the most unlikely places you'd ever think of: Manitoba, Canada. Welcome to the Narcisse Snake Dens, located just a few miles north of the town of Narcisse along Highway 17 in the Interlake area of Manitoba.
Each spring, thousands of visitors head to the Narcisse Snake Dens to see tens of thousands of red-sided garter snakes emerge from their winter dens and congregate in large pits to mate. After a two- to three-week mating period, the snakes head out into the surrounding marshes for the warm season.
What makes this part of Canada such a magnet for these snakes? It all boils down to the science of two key factors: food and shelter.
The marshes surrounding the Narcisse Snake Dens are filled with insects, earthworms, snails, fish, and frogs. To a red-sided garter snake, this is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. It's only natural that these snakes would be drawn to an area with such an abundance of food.
However, there is a problem for these snakes. When summer fades, the food-filled marshes turn into a frozen winter wonderland. The Interlake area of Manitoba can see temperatures as low as 50 below zero in the winter. These snakes would surely die if they could not find a warmer place to spend their winters.
That's where the Narcisse Snake Dens come into play. The ground throughout the area consists of thick limestone. Over the course of time, rainwater and surface water has filtered down through the limestone, slowly dissolving parts of it.
Like other karst areas, the action of water over time has produced all sorts of unique features in the limestone deep underground, including sinkholes, caves, dens, and crevices. It is into these areas that the tens of thousands of red-side garter snakes return each year.
They crawl deep below the frost line to warmer areas where they're able to survive through the harsh Canadian winters. For up to eight months, the snakes will not eat anything and will move and breathe very little, a process similar to hibernation that scientists call brumation.
So how many red-sided garter snakes might you see during the spring mating season at the Narcisse Snake Dens? Estimates vary from 75,000 to 100,000 or more of these harmless, non-venomous snakes. If you visit the area and hike the interpretive trails that wind through the pits, you can pick up and play with as many of the snakes as you want!