Two park visitors were standing across the paved trail on the north side looking at the ground. “Are you OK?” I asked. “We’re just waiting for it to cross the road safely,” came the answer. “It” was a baby gopher snake, a bit more than a foot long and hardly thicker than a pencil. There was indeed cause for concern, and the little creature was fortunate to have a pair of concerned humans watching over it. A passing bicycle, even an unseeing shoe, not to mention a hawk or kite, would have quickly ended its life. I flopped to my belly with cellphone out and started filming. The little creature kept moving toward the phone, throwing the image out of focus. I had to back off several times, not a practiced maneuver. Finally the baby snake made it into the grass where it was relatively safe.
The video clearly shows the snake repeatedly flicking its tongue out. The two tines of the tongue bend down almost to the ground, then up in the air, and then they retract. Snakes have a gland in the roof of their mouth, called the Jacobson’s Organ, that perfectly fits the two prongs of the tongue. When the tongue is out, it picks up microscopic particles of scent and then deposits them into the Jacobson’s Organ, where they’re sorted and sent to the brain for analysis. This method is highly sensitive and lets the snake hunt, recognize friends and foes, and follow trails with great precision. It can also smell stronger scents directly through its nostrils. Its eyes and ears, by contrast, are rather dim, and it would be in trouble if it had to rely on them only. So the tongue functions a little bit like a blind person’s cane, but with much greater sensitivity and accuracy.
It’s good to see baby snakes. Of course, after viewing the video of two snakes having sex, that’s not surprising. But these little snakes are pretty much defenseless and won’t always be lucky enough to have a couple of park visitors watch over them when crossing the pavement. Once they get to full size, they may live 12-15 years in the wild.
Gopher snakes, as everyone knows, are harmless to humans. They’re not venomous. They deserve our care and protection.