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Circle of the Serpent: Hoop Snakes, “Snake Balls” and Other Oddities of the Serpent World

There is a peculiar American frontier legend which has to do with a variety of serpent known as the “hoop snake.” This alleged animal (similar to mythic traditions that involve the symbol of the Ouroboros) was believed to be a variety of snake that could take its own tail-end into its mouth, and whereupon forming a “hoop” shape, would then roll after its prey.

The peculiar idea of “hoop snakes” has turned up in numerous written accounts over the centuries, with one of the earliest accounts provided by J. F. D. Smyth in 1784, as written in his Tour in the U.S.A., Volume I. The account Smyth gives is as follows:

As other serpents crawl upon their bellies, so can this; but he has another method of moving peculiar to his own species, which he always adopts when he is in eager pursuit of his prey; he throws himself into a circle, running rapidly around, advancing like a hoop, with his tail arising and pointed forward in the circle, by which he is always in the ready position of striking.

 

It is observed that they only make use of this method in attacking; for when they fly from their enemy they go upon their bellies, like other serpents.

 

From the above circumstance, peculiar to themselves, they have also derived the appellation of hoop snakes.

I recall hearing about “hoop snakes” as a child from my grandmother, who insisted lucidly that she herself had observed a snake commencing locomotion in just such a peculiar fashion. The incident in question occurred when she was a child, and she and a group of other children gathered together on a playground all claimed to have seen a snake taking its tail into its mouth, and rolling down a nearby hillside toward a forest.

The literal idea of “hoop snakes” is considered purely a myth, although when agitated–particularly if held in captivity–some varieties of snakes have been known to become disoriented and attempt to consume their own tails, presumably in response to the confused perception of this being another snake. It could be that the origins of the “hoop snake” idea stems, in part, from such observations over time.

While the frontier mythos of “hoop snakes” is certainly a popular element of Americana, it also overshadows an equally strange, and very real phenomenon that occurs among certain North American species, known as “snake balls.”

You might be asking yourself what, precisely, a snake ball might be (unless you’re like this guy):

This brings us to a peculiar hibernation habit among redlined garter snakes, a nonvenomous variety of North American snake which inhabits grassy and/or stony areas. In northerly regions, these snakes are known to hibernate en masse; that is, they accumulate in “dens” where the snakes number in the thousands. By some estimates, these areas where the snakes huddle together during the winter months see the reptiles gathering in numbers of as much as 15,000.

It would be easy enough to presume that this behavior had to do with the simple necessity for warmth, along the lines of the old adage of “strength in numbers.” That is, the accumulation of warmth among these creatures when collected together in greater numbers might contribute to their overall chances of survival, particularly during extremely cold winter seasons. This, however, is contradicted by the fact that the large numbers of redlined garter snakes are relegated solely to the sexually mature members of the species; in instances where immature snakes are found in hibernation, they generally appear to do so alone, despite generally possessing slightly less bodily mass for enduring cold temperatures. The question, then, has to do with what role sexuality plays in the snakes gathering in large numbers?

In truth, it seems that these large communities of garter snakes are predominately male; by some counts, the ratio equals as many as 50 males to every single female represented. Thus, as temperatures warm and the snakes awaken from hibernation, the females of the species almost immediately attract large numbers of male suitors, which lead to so-called “mating balls” where dozens of males are actively competing for the attention of the female redlined garter snake.

The video below features a location known for the prevalence of its “snake dens,” where this bizarre mating practice can easily be witnessed first hand:

Naturalists have sought to explain this over the years as a kind of procreation “strategy”–albeit a peculiar one–wherein the snakes are able to reproduce successfully with a minimum expenditure of energy at the outset of the mating season.

Elsewhere in nature, it is known that certain colonies of aquatic creatures can band together forming what are called bryozoa, which consist of a large mass of similar organisms, in some cases the result of a single progenitor organism via asexual reproduction. When found in lakes and rivers, such bryozoa can occasionally resemble the egg-masses of frogs, salamanders, or other amphibious life forms.

The so-called “snake balls” of the American garter snake offer a very different sort of “colony” grouping in nature from that of bryozoa; despite its efficiency, it is one of the most curious among the reptile species native to North America.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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