IV: A Day at the Beach

It is getting on toward winter here – not a real heavy cold winter like you have in New York, and no snow, but cold enough to need a coat sometimes, and it rains.  So when the snakes asked to go to the beach I wanted to let them have one more beach day.

We had a good time playing there – the water was too cold for me but not for them.  Some snakes live in the water – even in the ocean.  None of my snakes are ocean snakes, but most of them are great swimmers, even though they don’t have fins.  They are also really good at burrowing into the sand.  They can even play with beach toys – they can hit a small beach ball around with their noses or tails (they call it sssssoccer), and the cleverest of them can team up to work a pail and ssssshovel.  Scientists have not noticed this behavior because they have not given snakes pails or shovels to play with.

Finally, though, it started to get dark, and I could see that it was going to rain soon, so I said it was time to leave and asked everyone to get ready.  They didn’t want to go.  Some of them hissed ssssstay!  But most of them just ignored me, and kept on playing, or tried to hide.  So I took out my list and called each of the snakes by name.  There were 13 of them:

  1. Roscoe (an anaconda – he is my biggest snake);
  2. Aretha (a corn snake);
  3. Alejandro (a Mexican burrowing python);
  4. Lakshmi (an Indian trinket snake);
  5. Maria de Gracia (a tropical vine snake);
  6. DeWayne (a deaf adder, although he is not deaf);
  7. Trixie (an emerald tree boa);
  8. Olga Vladimirovna (an eyelash viper);
  9. Xzrwжmkяq (I never can pronounce this name correctly);
  10. Abby (she is so shy she has never told us her personal name, but she is an eastern mud snake, so we call her Abby after her scientific name Farancia abacura);1
  11. Cottontail (a red milk snake);
  12. Peter (Cottontail’s brother – they were eggs in the same nest); and
  13. Daisy (a San Francisco garter snake – the smallest one).

Whenever I called out a name, a snake would come up to the front and hiss pressssent!  I thought this would get all of them ready to go, but when I finished I only had seven snakes.  I could not see the others, but there were holes in the sand – as I said snakes are great at burrowing.  They were answering to their names and then burrowing out of sight.  This was not working.

So I called them back and made them sound off, like soldiers do in the army – the first snake would say one, and the second would say two, and so on – when we got to 13 I would know I had all my snakes together.  But when the numbers got to 22 I knew the snakes were messing with me.  Much giggling and hissing.

By now it was pretty dark, and getting colder as the rain came near, and cold can be a problem for snakes.  You and I, and cats and horses and birds and animals like that, are warm-blooded.  We make our own body heat – unless things get too extreme our bodies stay warm by themselves.  Your blood is very warm − almost 100 degrees – even when it is very cold out.2 But snakes are reptiles – cold-blooded animals – when they get cold they just sort of go to sleep.  So I told the snakes it’s getting cold – better get inside – not kidding – as I call your name go stay by the car!

The snakes grumbled a bit, but they obeyed, and one by one they went to the car, all except for Daisy, the smallest snake.  We called her but there was no answer.  Now the snakes got serious, we were all worried.  So we looked around frantically for Daisy.  We couldn’t leave her behind in the cold rain!  If she got too cold Daisy might burrow into the sand and go to sleep, but when the tide came in it could flood her burrow!  Or she could try to make it home on her own, but she’d have to cross the road – very dangerous for a little snake!  Finally we found her, though – she was already in the car, asleep inside the plastic pail!  So we all cheered, and then we drove home.  I warmed the snakes up with a hot shower (13 snakes can be great fun in a shower!) and lots of hot cocoa.  And that was our last beach day of the year.

  1. Every kind of living creature we know about (and there are thousands we don’t yet know about), every animal and plant (even bugs and germs) has a special two-part scientific name in Latin, which used to be the language of science.  For example, Portofino the cat is Felis domestica (domestic cat).  But a lion is Panthera leo, and a jaguar is Panthera onca.  The blue and white Indian peacocks at your school are Pavo cristatus (crested peacock) – but there are other kinds of peacocks too, with different names.  The pigeons in the park are Columba livia (bluish dove); the sycamore trees you see on the New York streets are Platanus occidentalis (western plane tree); the broccoli you had for dinner last night is Brassica oleracea, and you yourself, my dear niece, are Homo sapiens.  A Swedish scientist named Carl Linnaeus made up this system about 250 years ago.  Some of the names are really interesting.  You can learn more about this beautiful system in science class, or in the school library.
  2. You can prove this with a thermometer.