by Geoffrey Carpentier
For most people one simply has to mention a snake and they cringe – fear fills their minds and hearts. If asked why, few would ever say they had a negative encounter with one or even know why they're fearful. In Ontario, one might find 17 species of snakes, with only one being venomous – the Eastern Massasauga – and it isn’t even found anywhere near where we live in central Ontario. Can you name all 17? See the end of the column for the complete list.
We might expect to generally find only about half of those in our area. So let’s look a little more closely at them. Snakes are generally unobtrusive loners who prefer to avoid conflict with people, predators and even other snakes, quietly going about their business unless threatened.
Now here’s a quickie ‘Coles Notes’ summary about snakes in general. They range from worm-like blind snakes to huge constrictors to marine snakes to pit vipers. They can climb trees, swim in the ocean or other bodies of water, or stay on the land exclusively. They can be diurnal (daytime) or crepuscular (dawn and dusk) or nocturnal (night) and eat everything including birds, eggs, mammals, insects, arthropods, other reptiles and amphibians, fish, snails and slugs. They can kill by crushing their prey or injecting venom into it. With backward pointing teeth in many species, they swallow prey whole and slowly digest it over several hours or days. They can lay eggs or bear young live. And finally, they are cold-blooded, so need to find sources of warmth to keep their body temperatures elevated. One other thing which many snakes use in their defence is the ejection of cloacal juices, which is an annoying smelly concoction that is designed to repel predators. Essentially poop (my faithful readers will know I love to talk about poop!) this mixture of feces and urine is often ammonia-rich and looks like bird droppings and may contain the bones, hair, scales, and other indigestible materials leftover from meals.
Where do snakes go in the winter? Well they can’t migrate so they have to find other mechanisms for survival. Snakes generally find a safe refuge in hollow trees, caves, or underground in protected areas called hibernacula. In the late fall, before frost sets in, snakes return to sites used previously where they’ve successfully overwintered in the past. These sites must offer critical features, such as being below the frost line and being close to the water table (so the snakes do not dehydrate). If they can find these places, they can survive our coldest winters. Recent studies have shown that some male gartersnakes release pheromones mimicking females to attract other males to the hibernaculum so that the communal body heat can be shared. The males come thinking they can breed with the females, but once the males realize they were tricked, they still remain because it is too late in the season to find another safe harborage and this is clearly (to them) a safe, warm haven for the winter.Once spring comes, they emerge from these underground locations and often re-engage in the breeding frenzy before heading out on their own solitary life for the summer. Breeding frenzies, in snakes like the gartersnake, are a vigorous affair as the snakes writhe and curl about each other trying to impress the females.
Now here’s a bit of trivia which will make you the envy of every party. Did you know snakes developed much later than their cousins the amphibians and that when they were emerging as a new family of animals, they actually had legs and looked more like a lizard than snake?
Okay so now you love snakes. Right? Okay well maybe not love but have a better understanding of their complexity and part of their lives at least.
Answer to the names of Ontario snakes: Eastern Milk, Eastern Hognose, Northern Water, Lake Erie Water, Eastern Fox, Eastern Massasauga, DeKay’s Brown, Northern Red-bellied, Smooth Green, Northern Ring-necked, Queen, Northern Ribbon, Eastern Garter, Blue Racer, Red-sided Garter, Butler’s Garter and Eastern/Black Rat.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.