Emerging With Care

A snake’s scaled snout pokes forth from a crag recess and feels its first direct rays of sun in months. Her body remains in passage, still nearly as cold as the contents of your refrigerator. After months in her dark retreat, her now-warming head, the seat of most information sensing and processing, must be overwhelmed by the bright surface world that is also coming to life. This moment marks the beginning of a new cycle for many temperate-zone snakes that sequester themselves into nooks on the Earth’s crust, to be reborn into the swelling energy of spring.

A female Arizona Black Rattlesnake gets her first glimpse of the sun from her rock shelter on a warm spring day.
A female Arizona Black Rattlesnake gets her first glimpse of the sun on a warm spring day, photographed by Jeff Smith.

She has been delivered easily across the bleakness of winter by a physiology of profound efficiency, and may emerge with nearly as much heft as when she entered in fall. Her systems have idled: her heart, slowed to perhaps one beat per minute, supplied enough oxygen for tissue survival, but none for growth and digestion. Should an infection take hold, her immune response would compel her to bask opportunistically when the sun shone, but otherwise her movement would be limited to occasional shifting and a mid-storm drink or two at the surface to hydrate. In milder climates, snakes may remain close enough to the surface to bask, but feeding is risky, as the heat required for digestion is not guaranteed and such prey may become bacterial media.

Her eyes now half filled with the expanse of a great broad sky, she remains still as the shadows compact and then lengthen again, until she is convinced no predators loom. She slips outside but does not stray far; it will take time to become accustomed to this inverted world and to re-calibrate to the danger that has sculpted her body and behavior over eons. Heat cues emergence, but it is not the sole priority. Security governs her actions, and she may warm only slightly in the filtered sun beneath a bush or rock. Over days or even weeks, her stillness belies a tide of biochemical and biorhythmic changes unfolding, preparing her for the twin essentials of survival and reproduction.

Though elaborately and colorfully sheathed, her actions and body have been honed by natural selection and streamlined for success. She navigates the world by a constellation of environmental cues that are ephemeral and hard to predict. Certain scents, the degree of herbaceous growth, or the passing shadow of a raptor inform her competing drives for resources and security. Yet even the keenest chemosense and conservative cautiousness cannot avert all risk.

The fabric of the biosphere binds all life together, a principle that, for many of us, had faded with our daily preoccupations. For many, SARS-CoV-2 rekindled an awareness of nature’s web and affected our habits. Staying closer to home, avoiding crowds, spending more time outside and dispensing with unnecessary activity, we now act more like snakes (and other wild creatures) than we have in ages. Paradoxically, our vulnerability to nature has led to an embrace of the same, as avoiding the contagion impels more of us outdoors.

Human cleverness brought us to the moon and back, but our animal bodies will always be best served by focusing on our own neighborhoods and communities that nourish our well-being. Emerging from this long virological winter, each of us has an opportunity to envision and build a more resilient world, one that is attuned both to threats and to our needs. We can protect our neighbors, human and otherwise, by adjusting our behavior and giving them a little space.