The Narcisse Snake Dens

There’s a lot of slithering going on near Narcisse, MB, on warm and sunny days between April and the end of May. The Narcisse Snake Dens boast the world’s largest gathering of snakes – an underrated natural wonder of Manitoba. It’s time for the mating ritual of the Red-Sided Garter snake.

Garter snakes are native to North and Central America, with 35 recognized species and subspecies. Snakes in Manitoba typically grow to about 18” long, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the world, that can reach 51”. This is due to our short summers, which allow for only a brief annual activity period, limiting the snakes’ growth time.

Garter snakes have fascinating breeding practices. In spring, thousands of them emerge from a few limestone pits on the site with only one mission in mind – procreation. A hundred or more males cling to one larger female, forming a giant mating
ball in an attempt to prove their worth. During good weather, each den can house up to 10,000 snakes that cover the rocks like a living carpet.
Once mating is complete, snakes venture to nearby grasslands and marshes for the summer before returning to their winter

dens in the fall. How do they find their way back? Garter snakes use a chemical called pheromone, which marks migration trails distinctively enough that even rain can’t wash it away, guiding them back to their hibernation grounds. This hormone also plays a role in males fooling others during mating by producing both male and female pheromones for a competitive advantage in the mating ball.
Early September offers another chance to see them before they disappear into rock cracks for the next few months. The snakes use the limestone pits to stay warm below the frost line, huddling together for warmth.

Preservation efforts have helped the Red-Sided Garter snake population thrive. Around 20 years ago, they faced decimation due in part to a highway cutting through their migration route. Fencing the highway and building underground tunnels for the snakes to cross has significantly increased their population, currently estimated at around
70,000 in the area.

This wildlife refuge is a rare place that allows visitors to handle animals. If you are scared of snakes, it’s a great place to challenge that fear – and the interaction can be surprisingly pleasant. The snakes’ skin is cool and soft, and they are friendly and curious creatures that won’t harm you.

If you missed the Red-Sided Garter snake spectacle this year, be sure to mark your calendar and make time for this adventure next spring!

By: Anna Aráoz