Sunday 24 July 2011

The snakes of Ontario - part 3

Part 1 - Eastern Gartersnake, Dekay's Brownsnake, Northern Redbelly Snake, Northern Ribbonsnake
Part 2 - Northern Watersnake, Lake Erie Watersnake, Queensnake
Part 3 - Eastern Milksnake, Eastern Foxsnake, Eastern Hog-nosed Snake
Part 4 - Northern Ring-necked Snake, Smooth Greensnake
Part 5 - Gray Ratsnake, Butler's Gartersnake
Part 6 - Blue Racer, Eastern Massasauga

This post will cover some of Ontario’s largest species – the Eastern Milksnake, Eastern Foxsnake, and Eastern Hog-nosed Snake.

Eastern Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum)

The Eastern Milksnake is one of the prettiest species found in Ontario, and also one of the most wide-ranging. They do range all the way from SW Ontario east to Ottawa (and beyond), and north to Manitoulin Island. Milksnakes are generally considered to be habitat generalists, being found in river valleys, deciduous woodlands, fields, barrens, alvars, and even residential areas. It seems that they prefer edge habitats complete with ample cover (for thermoregulation) and prey.

Eastern Milk Snake - Muskoka Co.

Eastern Milksnake - Flamborough, City of Hamilton

Eastern Milksnake - Bruce County

Eastern Milksnake scalation

Much of agricultural Ontario no longer can support populations as it once did, and Eastern Milksnakes are largely absent from most agricultural areas from Essex County northeast to the southern part of Georgian Bay. In the past, many fields were left fallow and large hedgerows were present. Nowadays, the trend to go to a more intense form of agriculture has eliminated many of the hedgerows and old fields which provide habitat for this species. Fortunately there are still many good areas in southern and central Ontario. This photo from the Long Point area shows a great Eastern Milksnake spot with long grass, coverboards, and most certainly a lot of mice.

Eastern Milksnake habitat - Norfolk Co.

On the Bruce Peninsula and in “cottage country” Eastern Milksnakes can often be found near open rocky areas. This unique habitat is also used by other species, such as Smooth Greensnake, Eastern Massasauga, and Eastern Foxsnake.

Eastern Milksnake habitat - Muskoka District

I’ve had a bit of success with this species around where I live in Cambridge. Their density here seems to be fairly low though. Here are some shots of local Eastern Milksnakes: 

Eastern Milksnake - Waterloo Region

Eastern Milksnake - Waterloo Region
Eastern Foxsnake (Elaphe gloydi)

A brief word about the latin name for this species: In the past, much of the New World and Old World species belonged to the genus Elaphe. In North America, the Bullsnakes, Foxsnakes, Cornsnakes, Ratsnakes, and others belonged to it. Recent genetic work has proposed a whole re-working of the genus, though there is still controversy over the validity of this work. For now, I’ll stick to calling them all Elaphe.
Eastern Foxsnake is a fascinating species that I have spent a lot of time with over the last couple of summers. I’ve been fortunate to see dozens of this species, even doing some radio-tracking of them. As a result I’ve managed to see some interesting behaviour and some cool individuals, such as this hypomelanistic animal that a friend of mine found.

Eastern Foxsnake

Eastern Foxsnake

Eastern Foxsnakes are one of the most “at risk” species of North American snakes. Their global range only includes a few counties along Lake Erie in Ohio and Michigan, as well as three-ish populations in Ontario, all relatively small in size. The reason for this decline is simple – they depend on lakeshore marshes and adjacent woodlots and farmlands, which are being destroyed at a very quick rate. Road mortality is also a strong factor for this species which spends a lot of time wandering around over large areas. We have seen movements of over a kilometre in a day with some of our animals.

Eastern Foxsnake - Essex County

For now though, they seem to be stable in parts of southern Ontario, and hopefully this continues!

Eastern Foxsnake - Essex County

Eastern Foxsnake - Essex County

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon platyrhinos)

The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is definitely one of the most bad-ass snakes in Ontario, perhaps second only to the Eastern Massasauga. Not only is this snake heavy bodied and capable of growing to a length over 4 feet, but it also has the most impressive display when provoked. While many snakes may, perhaps, strike at a predator when cornered, the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake takes this to a new level. This species will strike, flatten out its neck cobra-style, defecate on their own body (to make themselves as distateful as possible), and if all else fails, play dead.

Eastern Hognose Snake - Norfolk County

Despite this impressive display, the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is a Threatened species in Ontario, mainly to the loss of their preferred habitat. Hoggies are specialists that rely on areas containing loose, sandy soil, as well as a high toad population. While many species are generalists when it comes to dietary preferences, Eastern Hog-nosed snakes subsist on a diet dominated by toads. The sandy substrate is necessary so they can use their upturned snout to dig out cavities in which they deposit eggs. This is quite an impressive feat for a snake!

Eastern Hognose Snake - Muskoka District

This photo here characterizes good Eastern Hog-nosed Snake habitat. The substrate is very sandy, there are brush piles and ample  vegetation to provide cover, and the canopy is fairly open so that the snakes can thermoregulate. Not visible in the photo is the series of ponds off in the distance that American Toads use to breed in.

Eastern Hognose Snake habitat - Norfolk County

The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake ranges in two bands in Ontario - one band stretching along the north shore of Lake Erie, and another band reaching from southern Georgian Bay east to the Kawarthas. The southern Georgian Bay animals are particularly interesting. Due to the lack of sandy soils, Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes here can be readily found on granite outcrops and shorelines.

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Muskoka District

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake - Muskoka District

This individual was basking quietly under a juniper shrub, not 20 meters from open water.

Eastern Hognose Snake - Muskoka County

In late summer the eggs hatch and baby hoggies can be found regularly in some spots. Unlike the dark, patternless individuals pictured above, these neonates I photographed had a very strong dorsal pattern. Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes are one of the most variable species in Ontario, with some being jet black, others brown and blotchy, and others a brilliant orange/red. But all have that lovable upturned snout.

Eastern Hognose Snake - Norfolk County

I have decided that I will split up the remaining species (Smooth Greensnake, Northern Ring-necked Snake, Black Ratsnake, Butler's Gartersnake, Eastern Massasauga and Blue Racer) into three posts. Stay tuned!


Anonymous said...

I was really enjoying these posts about Ontario snakes but I cannot find the next two posts you promised ;)

Great info and pictures as always, thanks!

Tony L

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Hi Tony,
I'm glad you have been enjoying the posts. Your comment is a good kick in the pants for me to finish the series! I'll hopefully have the remaining two posts up soon.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! Smooth Greensnake is my favourite so I look forward to it :)

Anonymous said...

Cool beans. I saw 3 Fox snakes in one day at Pelee. I think it was late may. I've also seen Brown, n.watersnake,and garter.
I heard the meat of the fox I the tastiest.

Jackie said...

How can I access part 5 and 6? (Part 5 - Gray Ratsnake, Butler's Gartersnake, Part 6 - Blue Racer, Eastern Massasauga)

This seems to be one of the better resources I have found for good photos showing off some of the colour variations of snakes, along with descriptions of their ranges/habitats and behaviours. Perhaps I missed how to access it, but if you or anyone else knows of a good online resource for snake ID in Ontario please let me know!!

Anonymous said...

Enjoy your posts. Find them very thorough. I like that you give examples of the snake’s habitat too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this helpful info. I just found 3 milk snakes under some plywood in my field (Georgian bay). Such beautiful little guys!