It's been nice to see some spring rain and snow showers in our area. Although we could use a lot more, some areas of the state have received so much precipitation that stream flooding has occurred. It seems like a long time since we've had that much moisture here.
I recall the rains during Memorial Day weekend in 1980. The Missouri River rose so high that the ferries had to be pulled off the river. So guess where yours truly was during that deluge. Yes, my friend and I spent the whole soaking three days and then some canoeing on the Missouri. Oh, it began with nice, hot weather. The only problems we had were a little too much weight in the cooler and a few snake encounters. The river was so low that our canoe dragged bottom for much of the first day. After pitching camp, we had time to go for a hike. We came across a couple of rattlesnakes, which were no surprise, but when an eastern racer snake came streaking toward us with its head held high, we must have leaped high enough to set a new high jump record.
Then came the thunderstorms. For more than two days, it rained nonstop. We had plenty of beverages in our cooler, but our food supply was limited. When it finally dried up enough to drive to Winifred, all I could think about was the Jimmy Buffett song "Cheeseburger in Paradise." Well, Winifred is no paradise, but it was one of the most memorable cheeseburgers I've had. At the gas station there, a man with an Australian accent was pumping gas. He warned us about all those "snikes" down on the river. "Yeah, yeah," I told my buddy. "What's an Australian doing pumping gas in Winifred, much less professing his knowledge about snakes in Montana?"
But what do most of us know about native Montana reptiles? And how are they surviving in this wet, cold climate? Reptiles are studied in the field of herpetology, a word derived from the Greek word herpes, meaning to creep or crawl. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first to study reptiles in what is now Montana, describing the painted turtle, the spiny softshell turtle, the greater short-horned lizard, the terrestrial gartersnake and the western rattlesnake. In 1833, Prince Maximilian of Wied and artist Karl Bodmer traveled up the Missouri River. Bodmer's drawing of a rattlesnake was the first known illustration of a Montana reptile in a formal publication. In 1855, Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden published the first written records of the smooth greensnake and milksnake in Montana. These snakes are considered rare and are listed by government agencies as species of concern. In the 1870s, herpetologist Edward Drinker Cope described the greater short-horned lizard and the western hog-nosed snake as being common on the plains north of the Missouri River and east of Fort Benton. Recent records of sightings of these two reptiles are few, and they, too, are listed as species of special concern.
The only area where I have found greater short-horned lizards is in the Missouri Breaks south of Chinook. They are small, with oval, flattened bodies and short limbs and tails. They have rows of horned scales at the back of their heads. They frequent sagebrush and short-grass prairie, and are usually found on rocky rims of coulees and shale outcrops. When the weather warms in late spring, they emerge from overwintering burrows and mate shortly afterward. Their diet consists of ants, beetles and spiders.
Another lizard I found in the same area is the common sagebrush lizard. Having never seen such a critter, I thought I would pick it up and examine it. As I attempted to grab it, it vanished in a microsecond. And I thought I was quick when surprised by an intruder.
These lizards have the same habitat as the short-horned lizards and may be found scurrying across sandstone or gravel in search of grasshoppers, ants and beetles. Sagebrush lizards mate in May. Males bob their heads and do push-ups to attract females, just like those guys on reality TV. Eggs may hatch from July through September, depending on ambient temperatures. As many as three-fourths of hatchlings may not survive the first year. The common sagebrush lizard is no longer common. It, too, is listed as a species of concern.
In all, there are fewer than 20 species of reptiles native to Montana. Ten species are listed as species of concern. Habitat alteration is their biggest threat. Road kill and collection for use as pets or costumery also take their toll. So I'm wondering what effect a cold, wet spring has on reptiles in regard to their breeding and feeding habits. How long can they stay burrowed without food? I suppose when they do emerge, that first meal will be like a cheeseburger in paradise.