2013: The Year of the Snake
Meet Ontario's snakes
FACT: Ontario is home to 17 different snakes.
- The hardy common gartersnake cn be found as far north as James Bay where it survives the cooler climate.
- Ontario's gray ratsnake (also known as the black ratsnake) is the largest snake in Canada growing up to 2.5 metres long.
- The northern brownsnake is one of Ontario's more urban tolerant snakes, but despite its habitat hardiness, its preference for night-time activity means it is unlikely to be spotted.
- The eastern massasauga, meanwhile, is Ontario's only venomous snake. All of Ontario's other snakes are non-venomous and are generally quite shy or timid and more likely to slither away from a human than to try and bite one.
Click on the gallery image below for a pop-up slideshow with additional information about Ontario's snakes. (More information after the gallery.)
Blue racer, Pelee Island, Ontario (Photo by Ron Gould/OMNR)
Northern brownsnake (Photo by Mike VanValen)
Eastern foxsnake, Ontario (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
Red-bellied snake, Ontario (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
Northern watersnake, Northern Bruce Peninsula, Ontario (Photo by NCC)
Common gartersnake, Manitoulin Island, Ontario (Photo by NCC)
Butler's gartersnake (Photo by Dan Mullen)
Northern ribbonsnake (Photo by Jon Fife)
Red-sided gartersnake (Photo by Ben Lowe)
Eastern hog-nosed snake (Photo by Ben Lowe)
An eastern hog-nosed snake playing dead (Photo by Natalie McNear)
Queen snake, Ontario (Photo by Joe Crowley/OMNR)
Smooth greensnake, Manitoulin Island, Ontario (Photo by NCC)
Gray ratsnake, Ontario (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
Ring-necked snake (Photo by Ben Lowe)
Eastern massassauga, Ontario (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
Milksnake, Ontario (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
What's that smell?
A unique trait of snakes is that they "smell" using their tongue. This interesting behaviour is accomplished with a special organ on the roof of a snake's mouth called a Jacobson's organ. Snakes flick their tongues in and out, capturing scent molecules. They then press their tongue to the roof of their mouth, passing the molecules onto the Jacobson's organ where the sense of smell is perceived. While snakes have nostrils and the ability to smell the same way we do, this sense is not well developed. The Jacobson's organ allows a more acute sense of smell.
Snakes shed their skins (a process called ecdysis), especially during growth. During ecdysis, it's difficult for snakes to see. Snakes don't have eyelids, but rather an eye cap or brille that also sheds. Because of this, snakes become reclusive during ecdysis and will hide until the process is complete.
What to eat?
All of Ontario's snakes are carnivorous and some have very specialized diets. The eastern hog-nosed snake preys primarily on toads, the ring-necked snake on salamanders and the queen snake on crayfish. Young milksnakes will even consume other snakes.
Baby, it's cold outside
Ontario's snakes survive winter by hibernation. Some species hibernate alone, such as the eastern hog-nosed snake, which buries itself under sandy soils below the frostline. Other snakes, like the common gartersnake, hibernate communally. Hibernacula, where snakes hibernate, can range from bedrock fissures and outcrops, to mammal burrows and hollow logs. Northern ribbonsnakes have even been known to burrow in ant mounds.
Snakes in love
Some of Ontario's snakes, such as the northern brownsnake and the Lake Erie and northern watersnakes, bear live young, while others lay eggs, including the eastern foxsnake and the blue racer. Live-bearing snakes may birth their young just as mammals do, or they may incubate eggs internally, from which the young hatch inside the female's body before birthing.
For more information and a printable guide to Ontario's snakes, download the Sciensational Sssnakes Reference Guide (453KB PDF).
Johnson, Bob. (1989). Familiar Reptiles and Amphibians of Ontario. Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc.: Toronto ON.