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Science & NatureWhat is That?What Is That ... Snake?

What Is That … Snake?


We have friends who would not give you two cents to glimpse a snake anywhere, let alone around our cottage at White Lake.  In fact, they would run like lightning in the other direction.  We do not understand this deep-seated fear and hatred.  Snakes play an important role in the web of life, and in Lanark we do not have any that are the least bit interested in us; rather, they fear us.

According to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Ontario, the province has 15 species of snake, but here at Three Mile Bay, we have identified only five: northern water snake; eastern garter snake, eastern ribbon snake, red-bellied snake; and, ring-necked snake.

One of the snakes we see every year at the cottage is the much maligned northern water snake.  We have not been able to convince our nieces and nephews that this snake is not interested in them, even though the snake will move quickly away from our little beach to quieter parts of the shoreline as soon as it feels the vibrations in the water of the kids’ play.  Northern water snakes eat live and dead frogs and small fish, and therefore serve an important purpose keeping our lake and lakeshore clean.  Never far from water, the individual below was photographed a few years ago in the autumn.

Arguably the most common of snakes at Three Mile Bay, the eastern garter snake is the first snake we learned to love as children.  At Carolyn’s elementary school in Toronto, the garter snake was the poster-child of reptiles in her junior classes. Perhaps Carolyn can be forgiven for telling her teacher that the garter snake was an animal with only a head and a tail.  We now know that garter snakes, like all snakes, have a head, an abdomen, and a tail.  The abdomen which contains the heart, lungs, digestion and reproductive organs stretches from the base of the head, along the length of the body.  Only the last few centimetres constitute the tail.  All of a snake’s internal organs are long and thin to fit within the elongated tube of its abdomen.  Snakes ‘sniff’ the air for prey, using special scent organs on the tip of their tongues, as you can see in the photograph of a garter snake below.

A close relative of the garter snake, the ribbon snake is a species of special concern in Ontario.  We find it difficult to differentiate between these two snakes, but our ROM field guide tells us about the sharp boundary between the white lips and upper head of the ribbon snake compared to the blurred boundary of the garter snake.  Unfortunately, the ribbon snake in the photograph below is one of many which have departed this world after being hit on the road by a car, but it still serves to illustrate this point.

2019 was the first year we saw a ring-necked snake.  This small, secretive, almost pretty snake occupies decaying logs and stumps in the forest where it lays eggs in the rotting wood.  According to the ROM field guide, the ring-necked snake favours salamanders, especially red-backed salamanders for a meal.  This snake is nocturnal and we are not, so they are a rare treat to see.  Its collar of yellow gold is so distinctive we can be confident of its identification when we see one early in the morning, up past its bedtime.

We do not know why but more than any other snake, we see the red-bellied snake most often squished on the road leading to our cottage lane.  The red-bellied snake is the smallest of the snakes we have around the cottage, growing to an approximate maximum of 30 centimetres.  This snake spends most of its time under the leaf litter of the forest floor where it feeds on insects, earthworms and slugs. The photograph below shows its ruddy brown back which runs the length of the body.  Although it does not show in the photograph below, its underside is deep red.

Of the five species of snake we have seen at Three Mile Bay four give birth to wee snakes, called snakelets.  Only the ring-necked snake lays eggs.

While none of ‘our’ snakes are dangerous to humans, we know most of our readers will never fall in love with snakes, but perhaps we can all work towards developing a healthy respect for these important players in the web of life and try to avoid accidentally killing them when they are crossing the road.

The main reference used for this article is the Royal Ontario Museum Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Ontario by Ross D. MacCulloch.


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