When a photo of several water snakes coiled around each other in a "mating ball" surfaced online earlier this week, social media and news reports were quick to label the rare display of serpentine togetherness as "scary", "shocking" and "creepy". (It seems snakes can't even mate in peace without people freaking out.)

The photo was snapped in Charlotte, North Carolina by Christine Proffitt, who was walking along a nearby creek on Monday when she came across the snakes wrapped around each other and basking at the water's edge. 

The internet quickly reacted:

I reached out to Jeffrey Beane, Collections Manager of Herpetology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, to shed some light on what the snakes were actually doing.

"That's pretty common in water snakes," Beane told me. "Females put out pheromones and males track them and find them, and occasionally you'll have a lot of males trying to mate with one female at the same time."

Right now, it's about the time of year when these non-venomous northern water snakes – the only such species commonly found near Charlotte – are emerging from their long winter rest. After some serious snake-ball action, the sexes will go their separate ways, the females will give birth to young later in the summer, and the whole circle of life will play out again next year.

This behaviour may be commonplace for the snakes, but it's not something people come across very often. "If you see something like that, you're lucky to see it," Beane said. "It might be scary to the female snake to have that many males, but it shouldn't be scary to people."

Even during mating season, snakes aren't normally aggressive animals, he adds. "If you mess with a water snake, if you pick it up, they'll usually bite, but that's not aggression, that's self-defence." As for the idea that a snake might pursue and attack a person for no reason, Beane is quick to dismiss it as something these animals simply don't do.

So, what's the proper response if you're fortunate enough to spot a big ball o' snakes on your morning walk? "I'd shoot some video of it," Beane suggests.

Kingsnake Lizard Related 2016 09 15

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Top header image: Patrick Randall/Flickr