Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
(Fear Not) The Eastern Hognose Snake

Today’s post comes from Nicholas Ypelaar, former Discovery Assistant Coordinator at Awenda Provincial Park.

“Wow! SNAKES! and/or the cries of fear that accompany them are phrases I am very familiar with.

In defense of all those who have no affinity for the limbless scaly reptiles of the world, I can understand. My grandmother grew up in Goa, India, where venomous snakes like cobras and kraits are common.

As humans, we tend to generate fears based on what we perceive as dangerous to help us survive. However, we are not the only species trying to survive.

I would like to dispel the myth that Ontario snakes are dangerous through the lens of one “bad actor” in particular, the threatened Eastern Hognose Snake.

hognose snake

Snakes offer a fascinating insight into the wide range of biodiversity in our province.

In Ontario’s more than 340 provincial parks, there are a variety of forest, field, barren rock and semi-aquatic habitats that are home to 15 different species of snakes.

However, of the 15 species, none can match the eccentric behavior of the eastern hognose snake.

An interesting nose job, overly dramatic behavior, and an aptitude for finding toads are just a few of the many reasons why the Eastern Ontario Hognose Snake is one of my favorites.

Despite all my provincial exploring (Thanks, Dad, for all the camping trips to Ontario parks!), it wasn’t until I began working as a student naturalist in Awenda that I first glimpsed an Eastern Hognose Snake. .

It’s been six years and it seems like this extraordinary animal has been with me every step (or slide!) of my journey as a naturalist.

Master actor from the world of snakes.

The eastern hognose snake is a moderately sized snake endemic to eastern North America.

As its name suggests, this rear-fanged snake sports a distinctive upturned snout, which shares some resemblance to that of a pig.

The other distinctive feature of this species of snake is the two prominent black markings on its neck, which tends to flatten (something like the “hood” of a cobra) when it feels threatened.

snake head with two large black spotsThe eastern hognose snake has two distinctive dark spots on the back of its neck that distinguish it from similar-looking snake species.

Despite the occasional hooded appearance, the eastern hognose snake is not venomous and is more likely to flee than fight.

If hissing and flattening of its neck are not enough to scare off a potential predator, it will secrete a very foul-smelling musk that resembles the stench of rotting meat.

As I learned the hard way in my second summer in Awenda, picking up an eastern hognose snake to weigh and measure it can sometimes cause the unpleasant musky odor to stain your nostrils for a considerable time.

Disgusting, but effective!

staff holding snakeWhen threatened, eastern hognose snakes musk to perceived predators.

If the putrid odor doesn’t work, the Eastern Hognose Snake will enter the picture and sometimes deploy a “false bite” whereby the snake lunges forward, striking with its mouth closed in an ultimately harmless attempt to scare away the predators. possible enemies. predators.

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How’s that to allay your fears?

If none of these work and the snake cannot escape, it will “play dead,” rolling onto its back with its mouth wide open and tongue out.

It’s not exactly Academy Award-worthy, but any movie buff who watches it might appreciate the effort. Despite its extravagant defensive posture, the eastern hognose snake is harmless to humans.

Find friends

Here in Awenda, we occasionally receive calls from nearby farmers who find snakes on their property and, out of fear, ask us to move them.

One such occasion occurred in 2017, my first summer at Awenda.

snake in handsA closer view of the juvenile eastern hognose snake reveals a docile individual, more concerned with finding toads than bothering humans.

Both the farmers and I were surprised at how docile and calm the pig-nosed youth was once the Park’s Chief Naturalist picked him up.

After a quick chat to bust myths and describe the species’ performance prowess, we were able to carefully lead the snake away from the cabin with the owner’s blessing while keeping “their” new friend close.

man holding snakeLocal resident and newly appointed snake conservationist John Swales shares space with a pig-nosed friend in 2017.

Phobias rest in peace, that day a new pig-nosed butler snake was born.

The theater often generates bad reviews.

In Canada, the eastern hognose snake is only found in Ontario. Its range is limited to the Carolina region and central Ontario east of Georgian Bay and south of the French River.

Unlike other snakes, such as the generalist common garter snake, which inhabits a wide variety of habitats, hognose snakes have very specific habitat needs.

Unfortunately, hognose snake population declines in Ontario are suspected to be greater than 30% province-wide over a 20-year period, leading to an at-risk threatened species designation.

Adult Eastern Hognose SnakeAdult eastern hognose snake. Photo: Tim Tully

Some of the most significant threats facing eastern hognose snakes are road mortality, habitat loss, and persecution by humans.

Ontario’s parks provide a safe haven from land development and habitat fragmentation, but road mortality is a constant threat.

The lack of legs means hognose snakes are slow-moving animals and roads are barriers that lead to death or geographic isolation.

Although slow moving, Eastern Hognose Snakes have been observed to have home ranges of over 100 ha in some cases. That’s as big as Rideau River Provincial Park!

This increased mobility leads to increased encounters with roads, resulting in a pitifully high road fatality rate.

Here’s how you can help:

Snake brake

One of the easiest and most useful things you can do with Eastern Hognose Snakes is very simple: drive slowly!

Not only will this allow you to better enjoy the scenic drive through your favorite provincial park, but it will also give you enough time to slow down and brake for snakes.

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park sign

Over the past few years, I have unfortunately come across several dead hognose snakes on park paths.

At Awenda, we have installed several wildlife crossing signs to help remind people that we also share our park paths with snakes and other wildlife.

If it’s safe, you could even go the extra mile and take the time to herd or move the individual snake safely across the path.

Commit to community science

As my fellow naturalists and colleagues will tell you, there is a conservation revolution underway.

Leading the way is the amazing community science app, iNaturalist!

Like other community science platforms, iNaturalist allows everyone to participate in meaningful science and conservation.

naturalist using naturalist

It’s as easy as taking a photo of that organism you’ve seen (like a snake hunting toads or crossing a road… even a dead specimen) and pressing a button to upload it to the largest online network of scientists and nature lovers in the world. world.

Because they are never found in high densities, in addition to their solitary nature and large roaming areas, a comprehensive population study of hognose snakes is a difficult task.

Monitoring elusive and shy animals like Eastern Hognose Snakes on a larger scale is impossible without your help!

Don’t be afraid of the hognose snake

Public perception of snakes in Ontario appears to have changed dramatically for the better in recent years.

Although many of us don’t absolutely love snakes, many humans have come to tolerate them.

That’s why I challenge you: if you’re lucky enough to encounter an Eastern Hognose Snake, or any snake in Ontario, try not to squeal and back away like my grandmother would have done.

Instead, put yourself in their shoes… that is, scales… and reflect on how you can help these vulnerable creatures.

staff holding snakeSincerely with an Awenda Eastern Hognose Snake. Name a more iconic duo… I’ll wait

Since acting lessons are out of the question, it’s up to you to act on their behalf. Now is not the time to put a final touch on this threatened species.

Plus, we can all appreciate a good spaghetti western, so hopefully one day you’ll get the chance to see his terrible performance with your own eyes.

Given the increasing pressures of climate change, urban development and habitat loss, the eastern hognose snake needs our help.

Unlike the pig’s snout, we have hands to lend, so…

Good snakes are up to you!

This is the eighth edition of our 2023 Species at Risk series.

Read our previous edition: “Peent! Peent! Here comes the common Nighthawk

Why are your scientists detecting wildlife? Can I collect snakes and turtles too?

Do not handle birds, mammals or reptiles unless you are helping to safely remove them from the road or interacting with park staff. The staff members pictured here are trained biologists engaged in professional research. These biologists follow a strict animal care protocol approved by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. These protocols review the desired outcome of the research and ensure that steps are taken to place the least amount of stress on the animal as possible. We ask that you always observe animals from a distance for your safety and that of the animal.