The Racer and the Jump to Light Speed

This article originally appeared in The Great Rattlesnake Highway blog.

There was once a time when I could chase down an Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer. Well, if it was on a flat surface … maybe if I had a head start. Probably not now, unless my head start was that I was allowed to grab it before it saw me. These snakes are not called “racers” for nothing.

MS-EYBracer
Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer

They can cruise around on a hot summer day, their big eyes alert to any movement, watching for a grasshopper or lizard to spring into action, and ready to give chase. When they do flush some unfortunate prey animal, they are unrelenting in pursuit. When a big grasshopper lands and freezes, the snake may have to search until it again makes the insect jump, and at that point the chase resumes. Having no venom and no ability to wrap and constrict, the racer simply swallows its prey or maybe pins it on the ground with a section of its body while swallowing. Racers can eat animals as large as a mouse or medium-sized frog, relying on the rows of sharp, recurved teeth and strong jaws to overcome the struggles of its prey.

Many years ago, my family moved to Fort Worth and my knowledge of reptiles and amphibians expanded from days spent hanging out with museum staff and reading books. At the end of the summer, I would occasionally find a little spotted snake around the yard. Their pretty yellow bellies were speckled with rust-colored spots, and as I held them their large eyes looked alert, and their jet-black tongues tested the air. Around the same time, a group of us kids found a medium-sized snake stretched along a branch within a shrub in a neighbor’s yard. It sat motionless, watching us, and I recall it being a sort of olive greenish color. I was puzzled about this snake’s identity but later figured out that it was what some people called a “blue racer,” but down here in Texas it was a different form called the Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer.  With further study, I discovered that the little spotted snakes I sometimes found at the end of summer were actually hatchlings of that same species. Over the course of a couple of years, the spots would fade and the snake would be brownish or olive or grayish-blue on top, and yellow underneath.

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A juvenile Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer, probably in its second year, still showing the spotted pattern.

Occasionally I would find one in the field, sometimes as a serpentine blur disappearing in the grass. Other times I might find one under a board or a rock, and if I grabbed quickly, I might get a close look at this muscular coil of pure energy. When grabbed, that same energy is directed toward thrashing and biting, and the poor snake may injure itself if not supported properly. The bites are annoying but not particularly painful, and they seem to come out of nowhere as the snake thrashes around to a new vantage point. However, when gently supported and not harmed, the snake may settle down, after a fashion, continually testing the air with that black tongue and watching its captor like a hawk. Drawing the animal closer, for a detailed look, often results in a strike aimed at the person’s face. Loosening the grip a little too much results in a sudden attempt to break free, as if the racer was waiting for just this opportunity.

Part of the racer’s reputation as a snake that can make the jump to “light speed” is its ability to navigate through brush and around rocks without slowing. Its top speed is actually a little slower that a person could run on a track, but when seen, these snakes are often around rocky outcrops, fallen logs, or tangles of undergrowth, none of which cause the snake to slow down. Imagine the speed with which this reptile processes the visual images coming at it, like a fighter pilot flying low over the landscape, dodging left and right but keeping right on going!

MS-EYBracer-adult – Version 2
Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer

Eastern Yellow-bellied Racers make use of a fairly large “home range,” or area within which it hunts, rests, finds water, and so on. In their book, Texas Snakes, Werler & Dixon cite research done in Kansas showing that racers may use about 25 acres as a home range. Within that area, the individual snake may be familiar with refuges such as a particular abandoned burrow or crevice under the rocks, and where the best pools in a little creek may be. These racers prefer open areas such as patches of prairie or savannah, and they may hang around near the edge of a woodland.

Texas has a four other forms or subspecies of racer. The Buttermilk Racer lives in parts of east Texas, and has the same overall bluish-gray to olive coloration but is speckled here and there with small globs and specks of white. The Tan Racer, found around the Big Thicket, uses forest habitat much more than the other racers, and is a uniform tan color above and pale whitish below. Along the southern Texas coast, the Mexican Racer zips along through the thorn scrub. And at the northeastern corner of the state, the Southern Black Racer is found in several counties.

On a cool, overcast day in March, 2012, I found a young Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer under a big rock in Wise County. I was out with Clint and his wife, and we thought we might get an early start on field herping that year. Sure enough, we did find several things, but everything was under cover, since March in north Texas may turn unpredictably from sunny and fairly warm to rainy and cool. When I turned the rock over, the young racer was too cool to dart off. Oh, the disadvantages of being an ectotherm! Being cold-blooded means that if you hang out in a cold place, you are cold, too. The engines that drive all that nervous, alert activity depend on warmth, and if you’re a reptile you cannot generate your own heat. The little snake sat while I recorded it on video, tongue-flicking and moving slowly. It even flattened its neck vertically a little at one point, in a threatening display meant to make it look bigger.

In the summer, being an ectotherm would be a big advantage for the reptile. Us endotherms have to take in lots of nutrients so that our metabolic engines can constantly generate heat. Snakes are “solar-powered,” directly or indirectly, making use of sunlight or a sun-warmed environment to get up to speed. As a result, they do not have to eat as often. But on this day, at the end of winter, the little racer was slow-moving and vulnerable. After I got all the photos I wanted, I let her return to the shelter of the rock and wait for a warmer day.

If you find one, admire whatever glimpse you get of this snake and let it go. That three-feet or so of nimble hyperactivity will just make you sprain your ankle or get a face full of cactus if you chase it. Or maybe, if you’re lucky, you will find one under sheets of tin, or boards, or under a rock on a cool day when light speed is not an option. They are beautiful, graceful animals!

Benefits of Nature: Notes from One Study

This is another blog entry that is “off the beaten path,” but I’m looking at some of the studies on benefits of time spent in nature (as well as mindfulness), and you are welcome to come along for the ride.

Mayer, F.S., Frantz, C.M., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & K. Dolliver. 2009. Why is Nature Beneficial? The Role of Connectedness to Nature

This paper contained three studies looking at the effects of exposure to real or virtual nature. They used questionnaire-type data to measure positive emotions and ability to reflect on a real-life problem.

The authors noted that years of research have established that time spent in nature “decreases negative behaviors and states” and “increases positive ones.” They also noted that we aren’t so sure if pictures and videos of nature are as effective as the real thing, or how exposure to nature works to produce benefits. Among the possibilities that have been considered are: nature helps us recover from stress and attention fatigue, it encourages exercise, it may facilitate social contact, it may encourage optimal development in children and/or perhaps it provides “opportunities for personal development and a sense of purpose.” They wondered if increases in connectedness to nature might be a mechanism through which time in nature yields benefits.

To measure this sense of connection to nature, the first two authors developed a self-report scale, the “Connectedness to Nature Scale” (CNS). With it, participants rate (on a seven-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”) their agreement with statements about feeling kinship with animals and plants or a sense of belonging with the natural world. The authors reported that earlier studies have shown that the CNS measures a real “thing” and does its job effectively.

The authors also wanted to see whether exposure to nature can lead to increases in the ability to reflect on a problem and feel more prepared to address that problem.

Study 1

Seventy-six students participated. One group was taken to an urban downtown area and the other went to a nature preserve. While on the way, they were asked to reflect on a personal issue that needed resolving. After taking a walk in the assigned setting (downtown or preserve), they were asked to spread out from each other and independently complete some measures of attention, positive/negative emotion, connectedness to nature (the CNS), self-awareness, and a rating of how they perceived their ability to resolve that personal issue noted above.

Those in the nature condition reported positive emotions to a significantly higher degree than those in the urban condition. They also rated their ability to reflect on their personal issue as much greater. Spending time in nature also had higher scores for connectedness to nature. Further, those in the nature condition made fewer errors on the measure of ability to pay attention.

Study 2

In this study, the investigators looked at whether real nature provides more benefits than virtual nature. Ninety-two undergraduate students participated. They met on campus and one group walked to an arboretum while the other walked to the psychology building where they were further divided into a group that watched a ten minute video of a walk at the arboretum and the other watched a video of a busy metropolitan street.

Those who walked in the arboretum had significantly more positive emotion either the virtual nature or virtual urban conditions. Participants’ ability to reflect on a problem issue was greater after either the real or virtual nature exposure and worse after the urban exposure. The measures of connectedness to nature were higher for both nature groups and lower for the urban video group.

Study 3

This study was done to further examine the effect of real and virtual nature on participants’ ability to reflect on a personal issue that needed solving. Sixty-four students participated, meeting at an on-campus building. One group walked to the arboretum and the other group walked to the psychology building. Once arriving, the nature group walked for 10 minutes in the arboretum and the virtual nature group watched a 10 minute video of a similar walk in the same arboretum.

Again, those who took the real walk in nature reported more positive emotion. This time, with greater statistical power because there were only two groups to compare, the “real” nature group were significantly more able to reflect on an issue needing to be resolved.

A Final Note

The authors looked at the relationships among the variables, and for each study concluded that a person’s sense of connectedness to nature generally predicted the positive emotions, ability to reflect, and other positive results. Their conclusion was that exposure to nature increases the sense of connectedness to nature, and that is what brings some of the other benefits of time spent in nature.

Doing research to investigate these issues is challenging. To compare the reactions of different people, you must design experiences that do not have unintentional differences that could bias the results. The way you measure things must be the same across different people, or else you could get results that are skewed because of different ways that you measured your results. These challenges tend to result in studies that use paper-and-pencil measures and brief or limited exposure to nature.

Many of us might think “connectedness with nature” is hard to capture in a 13 or 14 item rating scale. We might note that our ability to reflect on problems might not fully be captured by having people rate how much they think they have that capacity. Additionally, positive or negative emotions were measured by having participants rate the degree to which they were experiencing mood states like enthusiasm or engagement, or anger or fear (the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, or PANAS). That is different from directly measuring emotions (and just how would we really do that?).

I do not mean to say that the study isn’t meaningful, and I’m not suggesting that it is misleading. On the contrary, the authors were careful to design studies that creatively come up with measurements and exposures to nature or to urban settings that allow different groups of people to be compared.

The Cloud Castles of Heaven, Seen From the Texas Plains

Or, in Plain English, a Visit to Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge

Long perspectives and flat horizons (photo by the author)

Last month, Meghan Cassidy, Paul Mendoza and I visited the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge for two days, a brief trip in search of open skies, prairie, and Sandhill Cranes. It was part of a project in which I am writing about mindfully spending time in nature and Meghan is photographing the places we visit and the wildlife that we see.

Muleshoe is northwest of Lubbock, and one way to get there is to go through Levelland, a community that is proud of the high school girls basketball team, the Loboettes. You can be sure that James McMurtry’s unforgettable song about sitting outside with his mom, watching the stars and dreaming of being gone from Levelland, was playing as we drove past.

“Welcome to Levelland” (photo by the author)

We arrived at the refuge, getting out of the car into an open expanse of grass, a broad flat prairie set between two ridges. Above us, the sky was bigger than I had ever seen it before. Clouds passed in an infinite field of blue. It was hard to judge where the horizon was, but it felt like we could see all the way to Montana. Above us the clouds were big masses of puffy white with gray underneath, but nearer the horizon they overlapped and formed a fantasy landscape of floating islands and castles. Standing there and absorbing all this felt wonderful, resetting my frame of reference from the human scale of houses and yards to the High Plains scale in which we can take our place with a little awe and humility.

Grassland and clouds at Muleshoe NWR (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

Dry, winter-dormant grasses covered the gently rolling fields and ridges that stretched into the distance to meet the sky. Here and there a spindly cholla cactus or a sage plant grew, but the only visible trees were in the distance where rainfall drained toward White Lake. The land was ruled by grasses. We could make out several species, one of which sent up tall, slender stalks about waist-high, with leaves nearer the ground that were like curled ribbons.

(photo by the author)

Once again I thought about how much I am attracted to grasslands. I love walking through fields of grass and taking in the amazing but subtle variety of colors and textures. Here on the High Plains, the sense of openness and space was bigger than anywhere I have been except in the Trans-Pecos. Here was more prairie than I could walk through in a day, grass as far as my eye could see.

It turned out that much of the refuge property was off-limits to protect the winter population of Sandhill Cranes. A refuge staff member told us that people had been approaching much too closely, so they had taken action to protect the birds. We were able to see some of them, from a distance, in the northern part of the refuge around Paul’s Lake. Across the lake, the shore was dotted with well over a hundred big pale Sandhill Cranes. We watched and listened, though the birds were too far away for a good photo. Their calls and conversations came across the lake’s surface clearly when the wind was not blowing. The cranes were calling in a sort of low, stuttering whistle, repeated over and over again. Occasionally a squawk of protest came through, but mostly it was that short rattling call at a low pitch but with a higher whistling overtone. I found a spot of bare ground among the burned clumps of grass and settled in to watch and listen. The streaks of clouds were mirrored in the motionless surface of the lake, with some pastel blue and rose among the white and gray. Everything was still, and I could imagine that time was not moving forward or was only moving in slow motion.

Sandhill Cranes, flying overhead (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Sandhill Cranes calling (video by the author)

The next morning started with a cold rain, but by the time we headed back to the refuge, the rain was moving out of the area. Arriving before 8:00am, we saw a sky with clouds gathered in dark blue-gray masses and in some places stretched thin enough to be cottony white or even admit a patch of blue sky. In some places around us there were dark curtains of rain. Once again I was struck by the giant scale of this place. From horizon to horizon there was nothing to obstruct the sky, no trees and no buildings. All those clouds, all those mountains of water vapor, dark blue and dense or brightly illuminated where the sun struck them, slid across the sky on currents of wind. I meandered across the grassland, thinking of nothing as the clouds passed, trying to be empty of internal mental chatter so that I could absorb this experience in as raw and direct a way as possible. Standing here might have felt vulnerable, alone and uncovered to the sky, because in everyday life we rely on buildings, roads, signs, or even trees as cues for what is normal and safe. Instead I felt completely open and connected with the land and sky, without distraction.

Rain clouds at Muleshoe (photo by the author)

We saw a number of grassland birds, including meadowlarks. The Western Meadowlark prefers open grasslands and prairies, feeding as well as nesting on the ground. The Cornell Lab website indicates that they are still numerous but have declined about 1% per year over a period of nearly 50 years. It had been a while since I had seen one, but here they really were numerous, though quick to fly off when we approached. Our best observations happened when we used the car as an improvised bird blind. From the open window we watched and listened as a male sang his heart out while perched high on a thorny shrub, his musical whistling notes rising and falling. The call has been described as flute-like, with high notes dropping, coming back up and falling into a low warble. If we did not love this grassland already, we would have after listening to the meadowlarks singing spring into existence here at the end of winter.

Meadowlark (photo by Meghan Cassidy)
Meadowlark singing (video by the author)

Our meadowlark dropped to the ground when a Northern Harrier cruised through the area, flying low and looking for prey. These raptors have a very distinctive white patch on the rump that helped us to identify them on the refuge and in nearby areas. They hunt near the ground, listening as well as watching for food such as rats, mice, birds, and the occasional small snake or lizard. As our meadowlark hunkered down under the grasses, the harrier sailed by and circled the area, at one point fixing us with a withering stare. He reminded us of why so many animals are cryptically colored, alert and fast, or take shelter in burrows in the ground. Harriers, owls, coyotes and other predators are a constant presence, weeding out the slow, the sick, and the unlucky. This constant dance between predator and prey added another dimension to what we took away from Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge. It is a beautiful, wild place that seems larger than life, with a complex community of living things on the ground as well as above and below it.

Northern Harrier (photo by Meghan Cassidy)

It was a great trip and my notes, and especially Meghan’s photos, will be a memorable part of this project, which will take us to places all around the state.

Meghan, photographing White Lake from a ridge (photo by the author)