Baby eastern gartersnakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) in WPC’s temporary housing facility. They will spend the winter of 2020/21 in artificial hibernacula as part of a hibernation habitat study by the OPRREC team. 

Snake research doesn’t take a break in the winter! As part of the Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery program (OPRREC), we are ramping up for round 2 of an ongoing study on snake hibernation habitat in Essex County, Ontario.

Despite what some people may think, recovering an endangered or extirpated species requires more than “just” releasing captive-bred individuals back to the wild. Firstly, the issues that led to the decline of that species must be addressed – otherwise the newly released animals may face the same fate as their wild ancestors. Illegal collection, road mortality, and habitat destruction have all led to a steep decline in the massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus) population in Essex County.

Sadly, in 2019 the OPRREC team found only one individual, and this year not a single massasauga was found during our surveys. The Ojibway Prairie population of massasaugas is ecologically unique and genetically distinct in Canada, so conserving the small population found in Windsor/LaSalle is important not only for local biodiversity, but for the genetic diversity of the species.

In the winter of 2019-20, 21 wild-caught eastern gartersnakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) were placed underground in artificial hibernacula at three different sites at the Ojibway Prairie. The artificial hibernacula are constructed from ABS plastic tubes designed to mimic natural burrows used by snakes. Due in part to an incredibly high success rate in 2019, this year we will be repeating the study with double the effort, using 54 snakes hibernated at six locations throughout the Ojibway Prairie Complex and Greater Park Ecosystem. We will also be using a combination of captive-raised babies and wild-caught snakes of various ages.

The gartersnakes are acting as a surrogate species; the end goal of this study is to identify suitable release sites for a future reintroduction of massasaugas. As part of this study, we have been collecting data on groundwater levels and frost depth at our potential release sites. The perfect site will have a “life zone” underground for the snakes to hibernate where they can escape the frost and have access to water, but where the water table doesn’t come up so high that the snakes are at risk of drowning.

In addition to weekly data collection, we will be checking on the snakes biweekly with a borescope – a specialized camera which will allow us to see down into the artificial burrows – to make sure that everyone’s doing alright.

An eastern gartersnake overwintering in one of our artificial hibernaculum in 2019-20, photographed using a borescope camera.

Our hibernation habitat study is but one component of a larger effort to prepare for a massasauga reintroduction. Snakes have a unique natural history and complex needs to survive the winter, so translocating new massasaugas to the Ojibway Prairie will be very different from otranslocations of species like bison at Banff National Park, or wolves at Yellowstone National Park. 

In addition to our ongoing threat mitigation projects, like  barrier fence installation, we are meticulously reviewing over 100 snake translocation studies to glean insights into which tactics are more likely to result in reintroduced snakes imprinting on their release location, and eventually contributing to the establishment of a thriving population.

Ultimately, OPRREC research will benefit not only massasauga rattlesnakes, but many other other at-risk snake species that may be helped by reintroduction efforts.

Kelly Antaya

Field Technician – Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery

Kelly started working with Wildlife Preservation Canada as an intern, and is now a field technician. She has worked in reptile conservation throughout Ontario, and has also assisted on population studies of skinks and snakes on islands in northern Madagascar. Kelly is a graduate of Fleming College, where she received her diploma in ecosystem management.