Do you have ophidiophobia? Do you feel uncomfortable when you see a picture or video of a snake, slithering along the ground? When you see a snake in the wild, do you immediately recoil from its legless body and quick, darting movements? If you said yes to these questions then you probably have a fear of snakes. Snakes are often feared because their movements seem abnormal in comparison to a human’s, they like lurking in dark holes where they are least expected, and many species carry a bite filled with venom. It also doesn’t help that snakes are often portrayed in movies and TV shows as villains (think Harry Potter, Anaconda, and Snakes on a Plane).
Fortunately, for people living here in Northwestern Ontario, we have nothing to fear! The most common species of snake found here is the Eastern Garter Snake. These snakes are excellent predators of rodents, amphibians, and fish and can be found in almost every habitat, even swimming in the water! Garter Snakes have always been believed to be nonvenomous, but recent research has found that they do produce a mild neurotoxin. Every snake needs the ability to stun its prey before swallowing it, as most of the prey animals it chooses to eat come equipped with their own defenses (rodents have large front incisors that could easily harm the snake). The Garter Snake is no exception. This fact should not startle anyone, as the toxin poses no danger to the average person.
Garter Snakes are not only predators of the forest, they are also prey. Many animals feed on Garter Snakes, including hawks and small mammalian predators such as mink and skunks. In order to defend themselves, Garter Snakes will release a smelly mix of musk and feces when captured. In the snake’s writhing attempt to dislodge itself from its captor’s grip, this stinky substance gets spread all over in the hopes of deterring it.
Reptiles, like the Garter Snake, are cold-blooded or ectothermic. Ectothermic animals rely on outside heat sources to warm their bodies, as opposed to endothermic animals (mammals, birds) who heat their bodies through internal metabolic processes. This means that if a snake is outside when the temperature drops below freezing, they have no ability to warm themselves up. Their body will stay the same temperature as their surroundings and they will not survive. Reptiles that live in our part of the province have adapted to the cold winter months by going into hibernation. Garter Snakes will often den up with many others and spend the winter months hidden from the frost in old rodent burrows, log or rock piles. When they emerge in the spring time they will immediately mate and the females will bear the live young in the late summer (August-September). Females can have as many as 70-80 young in a single litter!
So, what should you do if you see a snake? As with any wild animal, admire it from a distance and leave it alone. Garter Snakes are not interested in hunting humans and will only attack one if provoked. Next time you see a Garter Snake, remember that they are not the villains of the forest, but amazing creatures with an incredibly rich natural heritage!