Getting a Frog in the Throat
Jeff Sullivan (usa - ca)
everyman 2004 - landscape and nature
I was hiking at about 6000' elevation in the Tahoe National Forest, and came upon this Mountain Garter Snake, Thamnophis Elegans Elegans, trying to get away from me and drag the frog with it. The frog, an endangered Mountain Yellow-legged Frog, probably weighed nearly as much as the snake (which was only about 16-18" long), so to move the frog the snake had to throw a large curve of it's body in front of the frog, then drag/toss the frog forward another foot or so (with his jaws latched on it of course). My first few photos of this phase are pretty blurry. Snakes only have one working lung, so I knew the snake would wear itself out in about 10-12 feet or so. Sure enough, it stopped to rest between two crossed logs and a large rock. I tried to act as unthreatening as possible,but since I was about 500X the size of the snake, the snake decided to let go of its prize catch and start to move to the safety of one of the logs. I moved back a bit and did what I could to adjust the camera to take pictures in the difficult space where all the action was.
The snake was not about to abandon a month's supply of protein. The frog was exhausted, alive and breathing but unable to summon the will to escape; apparently the struggle had been going on for some time before I arrived on the scene. The snake soon returned to the frog and started working on it where I could sit on the logs and shoot down at the drama unfolding. I shot dozens of photos over the course of an hour and ten minutes. As the snake became completely focused on the seemingly impossible task of swallowing a frog that was clearly too large, I was eventually able to move around onto the rock and extend the camera down to within a few inches of the action. I set the camera on manual focus at its closest range, and simply moved the camera in until the scene was in focus. To vary perspective and macro depth of field I varied the zoom and repositioned the camera.
The snake spent at least 30-40 minutes trying to get past the frog's shoulders, even throwing its own body up on the rock above the frog, to try to gain a bit more leverage and bear down harder on the frog. By this point the snake was completely ignoring me, perhaps too exhausted to care. Its mouth had to stretch so far you could see patches of pink skin between the (now separated) scales. At one point I could see the snake's "glottis" (a breathing tube in the lower jaw that allows snakes to breath while swallowing prey).
The amazing thing was that once the snake had more or less swallowed, probably a 2+ hour ordeal for the snake, the snake suddenly became more alert and aware, and started to move away. As I moved to follow, it swam off at a very high rate of speed, as if conpletely rested, and as if noticing me for the first time.
I like garter snakes, and I see a lot of these in the Sierras and occasionally get close enough to snap a picture or two, but this encounter was incredible. Photographically speaking many of the pictures would need more work than I'm capable of (or this contest's rules allow) to correct for some of the drawbacks of using a digital camera, but I figured that the drama of the struggle was quite compelling and non-professionaljudges might cut the image some slack. Besides, it was also my best shot at a great title (although I have to admit that I don't know who Buddy James is, so I may have missed the point entirely)!
As a side note on these snakes, the Mountain Garter Snakes I kept briefly in the past completely ignored insects, wouldn't eat earthworms, would very reluctantly eat fish and once ate a small lizard, but they absolutely loved and went completely nuts over Pacific tree frogs! The hop of a grasshopper or cricket did nothing for them, but somehow the hop of a tree frog triggered something that made them move faster than you knew they were capable of... they'd dart to roughly where the frog had hopped, then freeze dead still to see if they could detect further movement (breathing, etc). Nearly all of these snakes I've found have been relatively small, and I wonder if they've adapted to pursue tree frogs to adjust to the decline of the larger Mountain Yellow-legged frog.
I was hiking on that day to several lakes in search of trout to catch. The leading researchers focusing on Yellow-legged frogs insist that introduced trout are one of the key reasons for the decline of the frogs. Ironically I found no trout, but I found several lakes and ponds with tadpoles and these supposedly rare frogs!