Well, maybe smart is an overstatement. But not dumb is a good way to think about it. Today on campus, someone found a young Corn Snake in a building. Because…well…snakes are snakes, campus police got called to remove it. They brought the cute little thing over to the science building where it sat in a tank all day (snake prison).
Now this little snake is about as wide as a pencil and maybe twice as long. I went down to check on it (as a parole officer) and found it curled up in the corner of a 15 gallon fish tank. The tank was entirely empty, except for the snake…well, and the mesh cover that had a heavy bucket balanced on top. A bucket? For a snake that probably weighs about as much as a silver dollar (8g)?
After checking on the snake, I went back to finish some things up in my office. When I returned to it, the little guy was checking out the edges of the mesh covering. It was both an amazing bit of gymnastics and an impressive way to evaluate its environment.
Now the quick version of the story is that I picked up the snake, put it in my lunch container (from which the lunch had been removed) and brought it home to release in my yard (pictures below). It took off quite willingly into the bushes when I set it free. The more fascinating part, though, is related to how that snake evaluated its environment. Lucky for us, people have studied this very thing in Corn Snakes.
What they found was that corn snakes are good at learning about their spatial neighborhood. By putting snakes into an enclosed arena with a lot of holes, but only one escape, they were able to see how snakes did at the task of finding the escape over multiple trials. Snakes regularly got faster (over 4 days) at finding the way out of the enclosure. This result means that 1) snakes recognize where they are and have memory and 2) they’re not just dumb reptiles. That little snake in the fish tank was investigating its enclosure and looking for an escape route. Had the bucket not been there (or had I taken too long to get back, it might well have Alcatraz’ed right out of there. Luckily for both the snake and everyone in the science building, the snake is now in my backyard, instead.