Thamnophis Alba - The Scottish Garter Snake


A few moments with Steven Bol

Posted by Greg Mckenzie-Milne on June 20, 2013 at 6:40 AM

It's that time of the year again - show time. The first of this year's IHS breeders meetings on June 23rd is almost upon us and it is a pleasure to report that Steven Bol, will once again be attending this UK event.

Steven is very actively involved in the actual study of Thamnophis in the field. Regular articles in the EGSA's (European Garter Snake Association) publication 'The Garter Snake' have been filled with photography and interesting first hand accounts of the South American sub-species in the wild. I personally look forward to these pieces with baited breath.

To get to know Steven a little better, this is the interview:

1) Knowing your initial introduction to the reptile hobby, could you give a brief account of the reptiles you have kept over the years?

For my 8th birthday my uncle Peter build my first terrarium and my parents gave me a pair of lizards. I kept several lizards as a kid: bluetail skinks, green iguana, green anole, blood dragon from Indonesia.. A few years later I got my first garter snakes; the very dark Red sided gartersnakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) with little red spots on the sites from Manitoba, Canada. Back then these were imported by the thousands. Then for several years I focused on European Natrix species: N. maura and N. tessellata. The Viperine Watersnake (N.maura) also was the first species with which I had my first breeding success breeding in 1986. Later followed specimens of the North American genus of Nerodia, mostly N.fasciata and N.sipedon. I have also kept Asian members of the group of Natricininae, amongst which Rhabdophis trigrinum, R.subminiatus and Xenochrophis piscator. Some of these species are very beautiful and colorful, but some of them also venomous

2) Thamnophis have been a major part of your collection and breeding efforts. What was the initial attraction to the genus?

I have always been fascinated by everything living in and around the water. At elementary school we had a large plate hanging on the wall in the classroom with a cross section of a ditch with fish, frogs, newts and the top predator Natrix natrix. Ever since I always dreamt of keeping fish and frog eating snakes that lived in and around the water.

 3) You specialise/have a strong interest in the Southern American species and make regular trips to observe and collect wild specimens. What attracted you to these lesser known Thamnophis?

I am a biologist and I am very much interested in the ecology of Garter Snakes. I want to learn more about the habits of the lesser known garter Snakes and as such make a contribution to science. Especially in Mexico you have isolated species living in small ranges in the mountains and hardly anything is known about these species. So you can say it is for a big part biological interest. That is also why my interest is mainly in breeding pure species and subspecies, and not so much focussed on color morphs.

 4) Could you mention one or two interesting observations from the wild that surprised you in any way.

 Well where should I start. I have made so many that suprised me and taught me new things about the ecology of Garter Snakes. Maybe an intriguing one is a negative one. While travelling to Texas in early spring I was in habitats that for me looked perfect. Year round clear water full of fish, frogs and tadpoles. Temperatures during the day up in the 20s °C. But no snake (T.marcianus and T.cyrtopsis) activity. They were still hibernating. It taught me that hibernation is an essential part even for populations of garter snakes that live in the South of the US close to the Mexican border.

Another intriguing one was lake Chapala in Mexico in May. I was looking for the Lake Chapala Garter Snake (Thamnophis eques obscurus) but according to the article of Roger Conant it was too early in the year. The Mexican garter Snake should become active later in July when the rainy season starts. Also the borders of the lake did not look promising. No places to hide and very open. In the lake were some willow trees, and you could walk through 1 meter deep water to get to them. Much too my surprise there were more than a dozen Thamnophis eques obscurus and T.melanogaster canescens basking in the branches of the willow trees. They could easily escape predators just by dropping the water. I also observed mating behaviour and a coitus. That was a beautiful and very interesting day. On top of that there were a few melanistic T.m.canescens in the tree, a color morph never described in literature!! I felt like I was in paradise.

 5) In the hobby there have been issues raised in many species which are the results of inbreeding. Your contributions to the hobby by bringing fresh American bloodlines into Europe has been a vital service:

 What are your opinions of the state of hobby breeding today.

I am happy to see that especially in the Garter Snake hobby people are focussing on breeding and keeping pure species and subspecies. And many hobbyists try to get unrelated specimens for breeding. I stimulate that by providing certificates of origin when my baby snakes go to new owners. So compared with 10-20 years ago there are a lot of different species of garter Snakes available and in general inbreeding problems are relatively small and can be prevented. If the garter Snake hobbyist continue to select (as far as possible) unrelated specimens for breeding we will be fine for the next decade. The only species were the gene pool is very limited is the San Francisco Garter Snake. But even with this subspecies every year healthy babies are born in Europe.

6) What problems do you anticipate in the future considering the bans and restrictions that have been proposed in the European government.

I have faith that there will be place for hobbyists who take the care of snakes seriously. We need to preserve the species that are now available in Europe, and be very careful with them. Set up good breeding programs and prevent inbreeding. Actually these were the prime reasons why we (myself plus 3 other garter snake enthusiast from Holland and Germany) founded the European Garter Snake Association (EGSA) back in 1996. This association with mainly German and Dutch members is still very much alive and healthy after 17 years. Of course UK Garter Snake enthusiasts are more then welcome to join the association.


Section 2 - Britain


1) Having attended UK shows in the past - How do they compare to the mainland equivalents?

Well last year I came to the show in Doncaster for the 1st time. I have to say I liked it very much. The atmosphere and the location were great. Very accessible. Great people. Met lots of Garter Snake enthusiasts. Enough space to set up a booth. It was simply a pleasure to be there. So that is why I did not have any doubts about coming back to the UK this year, even though it is quite a journey of course.

 2) You will, of course, be bringing your wonderful South American bloodlines to the show - What else will you bring to tempt the masses?

I always bring a nice back wall with lots of pictures of all the different garter snakes and water snakes I have available or that I hope to breed this year. So people have an idea of how they look as adults and see the huge variations within the genus of Thamnophis. Beside that I will bring some novelties: the 1st albino Lake Chapala Garter Snakes and the first European offspring of another member of the group of Mexican Garter Snakes: Thamnophis eques diluvialis from Lake Cajititlan, Mexico. And as icing on the cake I will bring my demonstration terrarium to present a unique way how to keep the more aquatic species of Garter Snakes from Mexico. With the right measures you can almost keep them like water turtles, and they will show much more their natural behaviour when kept like this.

 3) Do you have a preferred point of contact, ie; through your website, forums, facebook?

Nowadays there are many different means to communicate. I am regularly in North America for my work for 2 weeks in a row. So my favourite one is via email through my website. I am very lucky that I have an uncle (uncle Henk) who helps me with my website. I can reply when I have the time to do so. Forums will also work since they drop a message in your regular email box to draw your attention (often I am too busy to spend a lot of time on Forums). I am not (very) active on Facebook.

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Categories: News - Keeping observations and other things.

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Reply Simon Chambers
7:23 AM on June 20, 2014 
Great information from a truly inspirational man, Steven Bol. He is my sole reason for attending Doncaster show and he has been the single most authority on garter snakes and their husbandry. He has corrected my few mistakes and reassured me when other so called "experts" insisted their ways were better. Steven has so much knowledge to pass on, I will continue to be loyal to him because he changes his husbandry according to his hands on experience rather than what others have written in the past. Garter keepers MUST, more than anything flexible and willing to change their ideas and husbandry. Steven IS the Garter Guru!
Reply Jeff Benfer
9:25 PM on June 21, 2013 
Very interesting interview. Steven I felt like I was right there with you when you saw the melanistic T.m.canescens in the tree, very inspiring experience I would imagine. I am very curious about your terrarium that is similar to water turtle conditions. Sounds like it would be neat to watch them in the water.
Reply guidofatherof5
8:31 AM on June 20, 2013 
Thanks Greg and Steven for taking the time to do this interview. Nicely done.

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