The summer months are just around the corner and our intense spring surveys are winding down. As the mark-recapture portion of our study comes to a bittersweet end, we can now expand our field surveys to new study sites in order to better understand eastern massasauga distribution. This transition period allows us a bit of “down time” to reflect on the wonderful sightings and experiences that we have had as a team so far. While our target species is the eastern massasauga, the efforts of the Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery (OPRREC) team also help other species at risk (SAR) in the area.
One such SAR is the eastern foxsnake (Figure 1). They are one of the largest snakes in Ontario and can be identified by an orange head, and a light brown body with dark spots or blotches. The snake’s belly is light yellow with black and can almost appear checkered (Figure 2). The blotched pattern of the foxsnake results in it often being mistaken for a massasauga (watch our YouTube video here to learn more about the differences between the two). Foxsnakes can be convincing rattlesnake mimics! They will vibrate their tails with enough intensity that it sounds like a rattle when it comes into contact with vegetation (watch our Youtube video here). Though it doesn’t fool us, we can see how another animal or person would be weary of this large “rattling” snake.
These beauties are always a highlight when observed during surveys and because they are SAR, there is a bit more processing involved than when we observe the more common species in the area (like the eastern gartersnake). When we find a foxsnake we record its location, approximate age (e.g., adult), its health condition (e.g., injuries or scars) what it was doing when we found it (e.g., climbing a shrub) and how we found it (e.g., under a cover object). The situations in which we encounter these animals are quite varied: we’ve found them stretched out on the ground, curled up in old tires, coiled under leaves and even climbing up a tree.
The foxsnake in Figure 3 was found three days in a row and we were able to observe him in a few different locations. He was first spotted while coiled under the leaf litter in a thicket and the only way we noticed him was the tiny bit of his pattern visible between the leaves. The next day Kaitlyn (OPRREC field technician) almost walked right into him while exploring a thicket on the other side of the study site (We aren’t used to looking for snakes in trees because massasaugas are poor climbers). Foxsnakes are excellent climbers and this one was about eye level up a tree and basking with a full belly. It was an exciting observation because when we saw him the day before he hadn’t eaten and was quite far away, and so we really weren’t expecting it to be the same snake. After capturing a SAR, we take lots of pictures and therefore we were able to identify this particular foxsnake by its unique scars.
I should also mention that we have been swabbing foxsnakes for snake fungal disease (SFD; Check out our YouTube video here to learn more). SFD has not been detected in any of our study snakes, which is great news because it could be very detrimental to small snake populations. Though we are not PIT tagging Foxsnakes, members of a nearby monitoring project are, so we always check to see if they have an existing PIT tag by scanning them with a PIT tag scanner. After releasing the snake, we make note of the habitat we found them in and continue our survey. Eastern foxsnakes may not be the target species of our recovery efforts but they definitely hold a special place in all of our hearts.
-Jenn Barden, OPRREC Lead Field Technician