Blue racer (Photo by Jon Fife)
Blue racer (Photo by Jon Fife)

2013: The Year of the Snake


Meet Ontario's snakes

Ontario is home to 17 different snakes, which are found as far north as James Bay, where the hardy common gartersnake 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.)

  • In Canada, the blue racer is only found on Pelee Island (Photo by Ron Gould/OMNR)
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    Blue racer, Pelee Island, Ontario (Photo by Ron Gould/OMNR)
  • The northern brownsnake is primarily nocturnal and grows up to 50 cm (Photo by Mike VanValen)
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    Northern brownsnake (Photo by Mike VanValen)
  • Eastern foxsnakes can both swim and climb trees (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
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    Eastern foxsnake, Ontario (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
  • The red-bellied snake is primarily nocturnal, living along forest edges (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
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    Red-bellied snake, Ontario (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
  • Northern watersnakes are excellent swimmers; the Lake Erie watersnake is a subspecies of the northern (Photo by NCC)
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    Northern watersnake, Northern Bruce Peninsula, Ontario (Photo by NCC)
  • The common gartersnake is the most widely distributed reptile in Canada (Photo by NCC)
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    Common gartersnake, Manitoulin Island, Ontario (Photo by NCC)
  • In Canada, Butler's gartersnake is found only in Ontario; it is easily confused with the common gartersnake and northern ribbonsnake (Photo by Dan Mullen)
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    Butler's gartersnake (Photo by Dan Mullen)
  • The northern ribbonsnake can be differentiated from the gartersnakes by the white spot in front of its eye (Photo by Jon Fife)
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    Northern ribbonsnake (Photo by Jon Fife)
  • The red-sided gartersnake is considered a subspecies of the common gartersnake (Photo by Ben Lowe)
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    Red-sided gartersnake (Photo by Ben Lowe)
  • The harmless eastern hog-nosed snake will mimic cobras and rattlesnakes to ward off threats (Photo by Ben Lowe)
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    Eastern hog-nosed snake (Photo by Ben Lowe)
  • The eastern hog-nosed snake even goes so far as to play dead when threatened, putting on a whole show of writhing before rolling over (Photo by Natalie McNear)
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    An eastern hog-nosed snake playing dead (Photo by Natalie McNear)
  • Queen snakes are usually found near streams where their food of choice - crayfish - can be easily found (Photo by Joe Crowley/OMNR)
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    Queen snake, Ontario (Photo by Joe Crowley/OMNR)
  • The smooth greensnake is excellently camouflaged among shrubs and grasses (Photo by NCC)
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    Smooth greensnake, Manitoulin Island, Ontario (Photo by NCC)
  • The gray ratsnake is Canada's largest snake and spends a lot of time high up in trees (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
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    Gray ratsnake, Ontario (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
  • The ring-necked snake is primarily nocturnal and feeds largely on redback salamanders (Photo by Ben Lowe)
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    Ring-necked snake (Photo by Ben Lowe)
  • Distinguishable by its rattle, the eastern massasauga is Ontario's only venemous snake but is generally not aggressive (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
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    Eastern massassauga, Ontario (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
  • The milksnake is a constrictor though it likes to vibrate its tail like a rattlesnake when threatened (Photo by Ryan M. Bolton)
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    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.

Getting undressed

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).

Sources

Canadian Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Network

Johnson, Bob. (1989). Familiar Reptiles and Amphibians of Ontario. Natural Heritage/Natural History Inc.: Toronto ON.

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