2022 marks the end of a chapter for many aspects of blue racer research by WPC and partners on Pelee Island. Situated near the U.S. border in Lake Erie, Pelee Island is the only place in Canada where these fast-moving endangered snakes can still be found. For the last two years, WPC has contributed to the coordination of a series of research and habitat restoration projects to preserve and increase – and save – the Pelee Island blue racer population.

The blue racer is the rarest snake in Canada. Photo: G. Evans-Cook

The last official estimate of the blue racer population on Pelee Island was almost twenty years ago, and concluded that the population was rapidly declining with fewer than 300 individuals remaining in the wild. To understand the peril the blue racer is in today, Ryan Wolfe, MSc from the University of Toronto led blue racer surveys with researchers from Scales Nature Park and WPC over the last three years. While more analyses are needed before any final estimates can be made, it appears blue racer numbers may not have declined as dramatically as feared over the last couple of decades.

Potential threats to the snakes on the island were also examined. Road mortality surveys were conducted and scat samples from wild, non-native turkeys were analyzed to see if they are predating juvenile blue racers. Additionally, DNA analysis of blue racer samples is being carried out by Queen’s University to determine if the Pelee Island population is genetically diverse enough to remain healthy.

The results of the population surveys and DNA analyses will be ready in 2023 to guide the direction of further recovery for the blue racer.

While increased public awareness of blue racers’ situation has reduced some of the direct threats, the natural spread of trees and other woody plants on Pelee Island has reduced the partially open savannah habitats that blue racers require to thrive. In response to this encroachment, partners from Natural Resource Solutions Inc., Ontario Nature, and Scales Nature Park removed trees and undergrowth in a few notably blue racer-friendly locations on the island. The natural landscape has also been augmented with structures to protect the snakes during two of the most vulnerable phases of their lives.

Artificial snake nesting structures are usually placed in open, sunny areas, so that the centre of the structure can reach the temperature necessary to incubate blue racer eggs during the spring and summer. Photo: J. McCarter

Built as winter shelters for the snakes, artificial hibernation sites or ‘hibernacula’ consist of a secure – usually underground – chamber where several individuals can hibernate through the coldest months. Made to blend in with their surroundings, no two hibernacula are identical, and each one is monitored for temperature and flood risks for at least one winter to ensure that the conditions inside will remain suitable for blue racers over the winter.

Artificial nests, on the other hand, are entirely above ground, and consist of a cylindrical, wire fencing frame filled with organic matter such as straw or dead leaves. This filling not only protects any eggs laid inside the structure, but also warms them as it decomposes.

There is still much work to be done to bring the blue racer back from the edge, but we are encouraged by the results of our population surveys. WPC and partners will continue to study and assist this delicate remaining population on Pelee Island.

WPC’s Reptile and Amphibian Program Development Coordinator Hannah McCurdy-Adams holds an adult female blue racer, named Marg for her data record. She was one of the largest snakes found during the population surveys on Pelee Island. Photo: R. Wolfe

Jessica Nelson

Jessica is a freelance writer and photographer living in Toronto. She recently completed a job placement with Wildlife Preservation Canada as part of Fleming College’s Environmental Visual Communications program.