| Jul 31, 2008

Outdoors - July 31, 2008

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Outdoors in the LandO'Lakes - July 31, 2008 Great Big Snakes of the Land O’Lakes Outdoors in the Land O'Lakes by Steve Blight

Black Ratsnake at Bobs Lake(photo by Steve Blight)

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune of spotting a fine looking specimen of Canada’s largest snake, formerly known as the Black Ratsnake. It was coiled up on the deck of our cottage on Bobs Lake, and looked up at me sleepily when I arrived. It watched me with seeming indifference as I took its picture and followed my progress as I brought a couple of loads into the cottage for the weekend. It then decided it had better things to do and slithered away into the bush.While this snake is relatively common in large parts of the United States, it can be found in only two places in Canada. Both of these areas are in Ontario – the Frontenac Axis south of highway 7, and the area around Long Point, on the north shore of Lake Erie south of London. The Frontenac Axis subspecies has been designated as “threatened” under the federal Species at Risk Act, whereas the southern Ontario subspecies is classified as “endangered”.The name sported by this big but harmless reptile has been quite confusing over the years. Originally known as the Black Ratsnake, a few years ago it was renamed the Eastern Ratsnake and appears to have been renamed again as the Grey Ratsnake. Recent genetic work has led scientists to conclude that the two Ontario populations are slightly different from each other, and while they are currently classified as two different populations of the same species, at some point in the future they may be split into two distinct species. This may mean yet another name change! But until they make up their minds, I am going to continue to use the older Black Ratsnake name – I like it, and people are familiar with it.The Black Ratsnake can become really large – up to 8 feet long from end to end, and five-footers are not uncommon. Males tend to be a bit larger than females, and both can live up to 25 years. Several years ago my wife and I saw one that was about 7 feet long and about 2.5 inches thick at it thickest part. This fellow was by far the largest snake I have ever seen in the wild. Adults are typically black with lighter colouration on the skin between the scales. The underside is normally white or yellowish with a darker pattern, often resulting in a checkerboard appearance. Black Ratsnakes can generally be distinguished from other snakes by their throat, which is plain white or cream colour. Young snakes are patterned with dark grey or brown blotches on a pale grey background.On the Frontenac Axis, Black Ratsnakes seem to prefer a mosaic of forest and open habitat (e.g. fields and bedrock outcrops). In winter, they hibernate below ground in communal dens called hibernacula that provide shelter from both freezing temperatures and dehydration. In summer, individuals seek shelter in standing dead trees, hollow logs and rock crevices to avoid high temperatures and predators. Females nest in decaying matter inside standing dead trees, stumps, logs and compost piles where conditions are warm and humid. They feed primarily on rodents and birds, and can quickly suffocate their small prey by constricting it within the tight coils of their bodies.The Frontenac Axis population is estimated at between 25,000 and 85,000 adults, and is believed to be declining over time. The main threats include habitat loss related to land development for homes and cottages, road deaths and deliberate killing by people. To help protect this iconic species, there are several easy things we can all do:Avoid running them over as they sun themselves on warm roads in cooler weather. Every year, usually in the fall, I stop my vehicle (carefully) and chase a couple of these snakes off the road.Protect their habitat by avoiding the urge to “clean-up” forested property. Leave standing dead trees and lots of large woody debris (e.g. fallen logs and large branches) on the ground in forests.Don’t – please! – whack them with shovels or any other large household tool. They really are harmless – unless of course you try to pick one up, because they can deliver a slightly painful (but not poisonous) bite as they try to defend themselves.With a bit of effort and some luck, Land O’Lakers may get to appreciate these large, handsome creatures for many generations to come.Please feel free to report any observations to to Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Lorraine Julien at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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