Sunday, December 8, 2013
By Ken Allen
Recently, Tom Seymour of Waldo spotted a 24-inch black snake on bare gravel by his home and assumed it was a black racer, rare in Maine, so rare that state officials have placed it on the Endangered Species List.
Seymour's observation excited him enough to email me digital photos of the snake and also to forward the images to Beth Schwartz, a wildlife biologist at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, stationed in the Bangor office. Swartz distributed the pictures to other biologists, and they concurred that the black racer was a melanistic garter snake by blowing up the photos and studying the scales.
Most people think of garter snakes as small, but they rank second in size behind black racers as Maine's longest snake. Maine's record garter measured 44 inches, 2 inches longer than our record northern water snake.
I have seen black racers in other states but only one pair of racers in Maine, a one-time sighting in late August during the mid-1970s on the bank of the Eastern River in East Pittston. The black upper part looked glossy rather than flat black.
Those black racers lived in a woodpile by Stan Foye's house, and beside the distinctive black and huge size, another feature helped identify them. These big snakes moved with almost unworldly speed, as they rocketed away into the pile. In short, "racer" describes them perfectly.
The "Racer" chapter in "The Amphibians and Reptiles of Maine" Bulletin 838 from the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Maine said, "Maine's largest snake, the black racer, is aptly named. It is lightning fast and difficult to catch."
Foye, a science teacher, and I had walked by the woodpile to build a fire in a pit to steam clams, when the two racers fled from us. He had seen the racers multiple times that summer, so we were looking for them.
The scientific name of the subspecies in Maine is Coluber constrictor constrictor, and the third name being the same as the second indicates our northern black racer ranks as nominate or "standard" subspecies of all the other subspecies on the continent, which have a different third name.
In many states, C. constrictor has more abundant populations, but in Maine, these snakes are more numerous in York and Cumberland counties -- but still quite rare there. They're ultra-scarce north of southern Maine.
"Constrictor" is misleading, because the species isn't in that family. Maine has at least one constrictor, the milk snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum), that kills its prey by constriction.
Reliable observers have recorded black racers of 6-foot lengths, a big snake for this part of the world, but a 4-footer is huge in Maine. Guidebooks say adults may range from 36 to 73 inches, but for years, recorded specimens in this state have not exceeded 56 inches. Juveniles measure 8 to 13 inches, and the young ones have heavy splotches before turning all black as they mature.
Old northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon) turn all black, according to the National Audubon's "Field Guide to New England," but are more dull-colored than a racer. I've never seen a water snake without splotches. They do have a big head and large-diameter body, where other Maine snake species have slender bodies in comparison to length.
Like old sipedon, black racers are nonpoisonous but aggressive and quick to bite, when picked up or cornered. The racer proves difficult to catch with the hands, particularly since it often bites at the attacker.
Black racers readily climb trees and according to researchers, can even climb a tree while copulating.
And speaking of climbing: In his youth, Bill Woodward of Monmouth, a retired fisheries biologist, saw a racer in Connecticut, coming down a tree headfirst with three "bumps" in its body.
This occurred in the 1950s, where this snake species was abundant. People routinely killed snakes then, and Woodward's father performed an amateur necropsy to see what caused the bumps -- robin chicks.
No one wants to harm a black racer these days because of the Endangered Species Listing, which mandates a $2,000 to $10,000 fine for wounding, injuring, hunting or capturing a listed animal.
Small mammals and insects make up 50 percent of the racer's diet, but racers also eat frogs, toads, lizards and snakes. They are opportunists, though, so they may eat any critter that fits into their mouths.
Racers are oviparous and lay seven to 31 eggs instead of giving birth to live snakes -- as common garter snakes do, 14 to 40 at a time. When first born, juvenile garters measure 5- to 9-inches, and bicyclists like me spot lots of them on road edges in later summer, often playing possum.
Seymour said that the melanistic identification excited the biologists because of its rarity, but before I learned otherwise, a black racer that far north had excited me -- more evidence of a warming climate.
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