Today’s post comes from Isabelle Moy, Senior Park Naturalist at Killbear Provincial Park.
Here at Killbear, it’s no secret that we are home to Ontario’s only venomous snake species: the Massasauga rattlesnake.
From our “Please Stop for Snakes” signs to daily snake talks and naturalists telling visitors if they see a snake to call the park, it’s safe to say we’re not trying to hide all the great work we do to protect this unique species. at risk.
A little about the Massasauga rattlesnake
For those of you who are not familiar with Massasauga, it is a small bodied viper.
This snake has a thick body and relatively short length, often measuring no more than 3 feet in length.
They can be distinguished from other snake species on Killbear by the distinctive bow-tie-shaped spots running down their back and striped head, along with the rattle at the end of the tail, of course!
As a species of viper, Massasauga uses some cool adaptations to hunt prey. Firstly, they are an ambush predator, often preferring to wait hidden in one place for their prey, such as a mouse, to walk past them, rather than actively searching for prey in the park.
Second, Massasaugas have heat-sensitive pits on the sides of their faces that allow them to see the heat signatures of animals around them (think thermal vision goggles on their cheeks).
These help them detect prey easily.
While these snakes are venomous and you should seek medical attention if you bite them, they are a shy species and do not want to be bothered by humans, so the likelihood of being bitten is very low.
Plus, they come with a built-in message “you’re too close to me and I’m stressed!” Warning: the rattle at the end of his tail.
If you hear that rattle, remember to give that snake some personal space!
Why did the rattlesnake cross the street?
In 2005 and 2006, our team at Killbear noted a very high level of road mortality among rattlesnakes at Killbear.
We found many dead snakes on the roads, often hit by visitors’ cars while driving through the park.
Something had to be done!
Even snakes need to learn how to cross the road safely!
To help rattlesnakes, we installed four eco-passages on two busy roads in the park, the Blind Bay Campground Road and the Day Use Road.
These passages act as a corridor under the road and allow rattlesnakes to cross to the opposite side safely.
To ensure that snakes do not try to cross the road in a place without an ecological passage, our team at Killbear also installed short fences along the roads.
Together, the exclusion fence directs snakes toward the ecopassages and the ecopassages provide a path that our rattlesnakes can use to cross without being hit along the way.
But do they work?
a second opinion
In 2013 and 2014, a master’s student from Laurentian University came to Killbear and studied the effectiveness of our eco-passages to find out if they were, in fact, helping our rattlesnakes.
He began microchipping individual rattlesnakes in the park and then installed chip readers on both sides of the ecological passages. This would tell him when a snake had used each ecopassage.
Wildlife cameras were installed at the entrances to the ecopasses so you could see which animals, if any, were using them.
The researcher spent a lot of time bicycling the roads in and around the park looking for dead rattlesnakes that had been hit by cars and responding to visitor reports of snakes in the park.
After two years of research, these were their conclusions:
- Fences were working to keep snakes off the road and ecopasses allowed snakes to cross roads safely.
- Without the installation of fences and ecopasses, our rattlesnake populations would have been gone within 20 years.
- Not only did rattlesnakes use ecopassages, but there was also evidence that other snakes, turtles, salamanders, and even small mammals also used ecopassages.
This is great news for Killbear Rattlesnakes!
What is happening now?
Today at Killbear, we are still monitoring our rattlesnake population and ensuring ecopasses continue to operate effectively.
Throughout the year, you may see staff hard at work repairing or installing exclusion fencing along eco-lane roads.
During the summer months, when rattlesnakes are active, Discovery staff inspect park roads and scour fences for rattlesnakes in and around the park.
We also respond to reports of rattlesnake sightings by park visitors and relocate snakes found on roadsides or campsites to safer locations.
Staff continue to teach Killbear visitors about rattlesnakes, how important they are, and what the park is doing to protect them.
Next time you visit Killbear, come to our Discovery Center and meet our Species at Risk Ambassador, Rita the Rattlesnake.
Many thanks to our friends!
We cannot talk about our efforts to protect the Massasauga rattlesnake without thanking the park’s outstanding Friends of Killbear organization who have contributed so much to help make our rattlesnake research, monitoring and management efforts a success.
Since 2013, they have funded a snake researcher position in the Discovery department.
They have purchased equipment and materials to install and maintain the 6 km of exclusion fencing along the paths throughout the park.
They also sponsored master’s research on Killbear in 2013 and 2014. This work would not have been possible without their support. Thank you!
Give a helping hand!
Would you like to participate in rattlesnake research and protection efforts in Killbear?
There are many ways you can help.
If you are visiting or camping in Killbear, watch for rattlesnakes! If you see one, stay a safe distance away and call the park.
Discovery staff and researchers have tools to help them handle rattlesnakes safely while taking necessary steps.
We will come to you and catch the snake. If it has never been captured before, we will microchip it, record its sex, weight, and spot pattern, and return it to the park as a new member of our research study!
Learn more about rattlesnakes and educate others. Reading this blog is a great start! Be sure to share what you’ve learned with your friends and family – rattlesnakes need our understanding. Next time you visit the Discovery Center in Killbear, ask one of our friendly naturalists to tell you more about rattlesnakes.
Visitors encounter another famous Killbear resident and at-risk species, the eastern fox snake, during a daily snake talk.
Consider donating to Friends of Killbear. They contribute to our snake research efforts and their financial support is critical to the future of rattlesnakes in Killbear.
Massasauga rattlesnakes are a unique species in Ontario. Thanks to our efforts at Killbear and other provincial parks, we are able to preserve them for future generations to appreciate.
This is the third edition of our 2023 Species at Risk series.
Read our previous edition: The Flight of the Prothonotary Warbler.