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Local experts urging drivers and residents to keep eye out for reptiles and amphibians

Barrie Examiner,
Ian McInroy,
April 28 2016

Be careful where you walk, there may be creatures underfoot slithering and hopping into spring.

With the arrival (hopefully) of warmer weather, the secretive world of reptiles and amphibians is poised to come to life.

During a leisurely shoreline stroll — or lining up a shot at an area golf course — you may spot a green frog or a yellow-chinned Blanding’s turtle. If you turn over a log, you may find a milksnake or a red-spotted newt.

"There are number of common reptiles and amphibians that might be observed around Simcoe County in the early to late spring," said Mike Francis, area co-ordinator the Orillia Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, who is also a conservation biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

The atlas is a citizen-science program that tracks trends of the creatures across the province with an aim to increase knowledge about reptiles, amphibians and, perhaps just as importantly, engage the help of non-scientists.

"Getting involved in citizen science is extremely important for a number of reasons," Francis said. "For biologists, resources are often extremely limited, but we want to discover more about the life cycles and distributions of Ontario's species. When citizens submit wildlife sightings through forums like the atlas, they're providing significant data that contributes to wildlife conservation."

Francis said hikers, and homeowners, can come across a number of species this time of year.

Those can include the eastern garter snake, found in a wide range of habitats from forests to backyards, with its distinctive pattern of stripes running down the length of an otherwise dark body.

The spring peeper and western chorus frogs are common local species that you will likely hear but may never see.

"These frogs, like all others, are impacted by development, which contributes to the loss of critical wetland breeding areas," he said.

And elusive salamanders and newts can prove difficult to observe, unless you're actively searching, Francis said. Both are quite common around Simcoe County and enjoy the comfort and cover of logs and forest dead fall, although the eastern newt also relies on wetlands for reproduction.

Blanding's turtles have a rather "adorable feature" where their mouths appear to be smiling, Francis said.

"This, combined with their tendency to hold their heads up while basking, gives some a quite proud and happy appearance. They have keen senses and are typically quite weary of people, so it's unlikely that you will observe this species in a pond, as you might with a painted turtle," he added.

Milk snakes, one of Ontario's most beautiful snakes, have a blotchy pattern that can be a brilliant red, as well as a distinctive 'V' marking on the head. They are most often found under rocks and logs, as they don't seem to venture beyond cover as much as other local snakes species.

So, what to do if you come across one or more of these creatures?

"Never attempt to pick up or handle these animals in their natural environment for a variety of reasons, but primarily because of the potential for stress to the animal and because you likely have various contaminants on your hands," Francis said. "Road rescue can be considered an exception, as failure to assist a snake or turtle across the road could result in it being hit by the next car to come along.

"But if you must conduct a road rescue, it's critically important to make sure you safely pull off the road first. When you're sure it's safe to step onto the road, you can approach the animal and attempt to coax it aside, always in the direction is was already heading," Francis said. "If some gentle encouragement doesn't work, you could consider picking up the snake or turtle and moving it to the side. Always know what you're dealing with."

Massasauga rattlesnakes can be found in some of the northern areas of Simcoe County and these should not be picked up. Likewise, snapping turtles can be stubborn and might attempt to strike if threatened.

"Personally, I keep a small snow shovel in my car most of the time to scoop these guys and help them on their way," he added.

When citizens submit wildlife sightings through forums like the atlas, they're providing significant data that contributes to wildlife conservation, Francis said.

"It's also a chance to learn something new, something you might not have known you were interested in," he said. "Exploring the species and wild spaces in your neighbourhood can be really exciting and addictive."

In addition to habitat loss, persecution still remains a huge threat to reptiles, particularly snakes, he added.

"People are afraid of snakes for a number of reasons, but mainly because they think they are dangerous, which is a huge misconception," Francis said. "Snakes are generally harmless, and there is only one venomous species in Ontario, the Massasauga rattlesnake. Although they can be found around the Georgian Bay area, Massasaugas are extremely uncommon and listed as threatened and endangered in different areas of the province."

If you're in Massasauga territory, northern Simcoe County, just be aware, stick to trails and watch where you step.

"Killing a snake is never justifiable. They have as much right to exist on the landscape as we do," Francis said.

To learn more about reptiles and amphibians, and how you can report sightings, visit www.ontarionature.org/protect/species/herpetofaunal_atlas.php.

— with files from Nature Conservancy of Canada

imcinroy@postmedia.com

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