Predators, Prey, And The Dance Of Life And Death

A common garter snake, handsome and scaly, had a pickerel frog, beautifully spotted and smooth-skinned, by one of its rear legs. I was leading a group of young professional naturalists, training for work this summer at the Adirondack Mountain Club's Adirondack Loj [long story, but that's how they spell it] and the Paul Smith's College Visitor Interpretive Center in Paul Smith's. A young woman spied the snake, and then I spied the frog.

Yikes! Here was nature at its riveting, and sometimes unsettling, best. We didn't intervene. Snakes and frogs have been sharing landscapes for millions of years, and this was their struggle for survival, not ours. Nor could we look away. It seemed unlikely that the small snake could get down the small frog leg-first, but then, the frog seemed accepting of whatever fate was about to befall it. And the snake was clearly determined.

Working its Spandex-like skin and intricate arrangement of jaw bones up and over the rest of the frog, the snake was nine-tenths of the way done when we eventually moved on. We'd enjoyed a thoughtful discussion about the drama we'd witnessed. On one hand, all felt sorry for the frog.  On the other, we recognized that just as pickerel frogs survive by preying on animals smaller than themselves, so do garter snakes. 

A week earlier, companions and I had seen a broad-winged hawk fly over a field, carrying a garter snake about the same size as the one that captured the frog. Eating and being eaten: it's the way of the world. 

On the outings I lead in the Adirondacks, we see nature at its most peaceful and sublime, and sometimes we also see the opposite. When the sight of killing makes someone sad or queasy, I remind him or her that predators don't just take. They also give. In the case of the pickerel frog, keen eyes, powerful legs for jumping, and exquisite camouflage are at least in part compensation for a long, long span of evolution in the presence of hunters, including snakes. As for myself, I'm mindful that the broccoli I grow in our garden is alive and minding its own business before I kill and eat it.

Note: there are no venomous snakes in our part of the Adirondacks. Garter snakes are small, harmless, and, for those not keen on snakes, easily avoided.