Ontario Nature Blog

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Snake Secrets

August 19-20, 2010

I was just pointing out a snapping turtle that had crawled up from under the bank of the creek on one of our nature reserves when someone shouted “snake!” It was an eastern gartersnake, the most common snake species in Ontario and the yeller was another Ontario Nature staff person, a group of staff had joined me that day to see what John Urquhart and I were up to when we’re out in the field researching reptiles and amphibians for our Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas.

We also went looking for massasaugas but no luck this time. Lesson of the day: these animals can be very difficult to find and searching for them requires a lot of patience!
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The next morning was nice and sunny and I spotted a northern watersnake swimming across a small stream. I leapt after the snake, getting one foot onto the opposite bank and throwing my weight forward to avoid falling back into the stream. The snake disappeared under a shrub. I took the high ground during my search, hoping that the snake might head back for the water. Sure enough, it re-appeared in the stream, swam about 2 m downstream and headed back up onto the shore, where I easily apprehended it.

One of our staff, who is petrified of snakes, came over to get a better look. To our amazement, she decided to hold the snake!

Ok, this is my second lesson of the day: most people are scared of snakes because they don’t know anything about them and assume that all snakes are deadly. In fact, in Ontario all snakes but the massasaugas are completely harmless, and the massasauga has a very restricted distribution in Ontario, is very docile and is not even deadly if proper medical attention is received.

Honestly, teaching people just a little about snakes can go a long way: in only a few minutes, about 90% of people will go from being terrified and not wanting to come within 10 feet of a snake to being absolutely fascinated with them, holding them and not wanting to put them down!

Joe Crowley was Ontario Nature’s Reptile and Amphibian Atlas Coordinator.


Amazing Pelee Island


Me and the map turtles


  1. Caroline Schultz

    Caroline Schultz

    Love snakes, Joe. Grew up in Ireland where St. Patrick supposedly drove them from the island. But got to have many up close and personal encounters with very LARGE pythons in the Dublin Zoo where the keepers used to bring out the largest snakes to drape around our necks. But was really thrilled to arrive in Ontario in the early 80s to discover native snakes in the wild — gartner snakes, smooth green snakes, blue racers and fox snakes were my earliest encounters.

  2. Keith Sly

    I live in an older farm house on the Frontenac Arch. A black rat snake has decided to overwinter in my back basement where I keep the hose reels and dormant plants. The temperature is about 10 celsius and there is a small window. The snake moves around; I sometimes find it on the hose reel, sometimes in the plants – today it was stretched out on a piece of foam insulation. Will the snake hibernate or stay awake all winter? We’ll see.

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