Snake sex orgies knock years off males’ lives as females thrive

5 Apr 2017

Red-sided garter snakes mating. Image: Cindy Creighton/Shutterstock

Male red-sided garter snakes die younger and have smaller bodies than their female counterparts. Why? Sex, of course.

The life of a male red-sided garter snake is odd. Hibernate underground for eight months, emerge from the depths en masse and then travel in swarms to find a mate.

The problem is that it’s not a monogamous relationship, as males have to engage in a snake orgy with females just to keep the family line going.

Sadly for the males, this makes for a short – albeit eventful – life.

An international team of scientists led by the University of Sydney investigated the snake activity in North America, confirming that the frenzied approach to the mating season is resulting in males dying earlier, and ending up in worse condition than their female counterparts.

Males have just four months to eat and mate but, for up to one month of that, they go without food to search for a female. The latter don’t spend nearly as long involved, hopping out of the ‘orgy site’ after just one day.

The team found that the males are unable to maintain good bodily health and age faster than females. This is probably because they use up their energy mating, instead of protecting against DNA and cellular damage associated with ageing.

In contrast, females prioritise body condition and may be better able to repair cellular damage, leading to longer lives and future opportunities to reproduce.

“Although we believe that all females mate every year, they only stay at the den sites (where mating takes place) for a short period of one to three days; much less than males, who remain at least a week and up to 21 days,” said Dr Christopher R Friesen of the University of Sydney, lead author on the study.

“Females reproduce every other year, which depends on their stored fat/energy reserves. Our previous research has shown that females can store sperm for up to 15 months or more before she uses the sperm to fertilise her eggs!”

In addition to prioritising self-preservation over sex, the female garter snakes studied in Manitoba, Canada, did not waste energy on looking after their babies postnatally, which is in line with the parenting approach of other snakes.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic