The Ojiway Prairie Reptile Recovery (OPRREC) team here in southwestern Ontario wanted to celebrate all things snake by sharing some natural history about the amazing snake species that can be found in the Ojibway prairie complex!
Photo credit: Eric Jolin
Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus)
The massasauga, the focal species of the OPRREC project, is Ontario’s only venomous snake. They are identified by the rattle on the end of their tail, their triangular heads, vertical pupils, and butterfly/saddle-shaped blotches, and rarely exceed 75 cm in length. They primarily inhabit wetlands near rivers (their name means “great river mouth” in Ojibwa), but are also found in tallgrass prairie, forests, and on rock barrens. Like all pit vipers, massasaugas can see thermal images using heat-sensitive pits located below their nostrils.
Eastern Foxsnake (Pantherophis vulpinus)
The eastern foxsnake can reach lengths upwards of 170 cm, and is identified by its rust coloured head, yellowish body with dark blotches, and lightly keeled scales. This species can be found in unforested habitats such as tallgrass prairie, rock barrens, and wetlands. Foxsnakes are both excellent swimmers and climbers, and use these skills to help them hunt down small mammals and bird eggs/young. When disturbed, this species will vibrate its tail to mimic a rattlesnake, in the hopes that the potential predator will leave them alone.
Butler’s Gartersnake (Thamnophis butleri)
The Butler’s gartersnake is very similar in appearance to the eastern gartersnake, but can be distinguished by its side stripes which are centred on the third scale row (and on part of the second and fourth scale rows). This species is found in prairie habitat such as tallgrass prairie, old fields, and wetland edges. Unlike most other snake species, Butler’s gartersnakes feed primarily on earthworms. They are also known to overwinter in crayfish burrows, like several other snake species found in the Ojibway Prairie Complex. In Ontario, this species is only found in the Southwestern-most portion of the province.
Photo credit: John Williams
Dekay’s Brownsnake (Storeria dekayi)
The Dekay’s brownsnake is a small-bodied (~50 cm), brown snake that has two rows of spots that extend down the length of it’s body. Like gartersnakes, they are relatively common and can be found in a variety of habitats such as forests, prairie, and wetlands. They eat a variety of invertebrates such as slugs and worms, and will occasionally eat small fish and invertebrates. Despite its wide range, relatively little is known about this species due to their small size and cryptic behaviour.
Red-bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata)
The red-bellied snake is Ontario’s smallest snake species, growing to a maximum length of 40 cm. They are named after their prominent belly, usually bright red but occasionally orange or pink. They are generally found in forest-edge habitat and meadows, where they hunt for their preferred prey of invertebrates such as slugs, earthworms, and grubs. Like several other species in Ontario, red-bellied snakes are ovoviviparous, meaning that they incubate their eggs internally before giving birth to live young.
Lead Field Technician, Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery
Matt is currently finishing up his Master’s degree in Biology at Queen’s University where he has been working on developing and improving conservation strategies for gray ratsnakes. Over the years he has worked on several different conservation projects primarily focusing on reptile, bird, and insect species-at-risk both in Canada and abroad.