The Eastern Hog-nosed snake is recognized as a threatened species in Ontario and has a limited range in Southern Ontario. These snakes are typically found in sandy habitats, such as beaches and dry woods – especially where there is a healthy population of toads which are this snake’s favourite meal! Wasaga Beach Provincial Park provides suitable habitat for this species and has been spotted a number of times within park boundaries.
The name of this snake refers to the expanded scales around the front of their face, giving the snake an up-turned snout appearance. The function of these shovel-like scales is to assist the snake in burrowing through loose sand in search of the American toad. Hog-nosed snakes are specialized toad feeders and are resistant to the toxins toads contain. This snake is not venomous and is harmless.
One of the main threats to the Eastern Hog-nosed snake is the lack of public awareness regarding their fascinating behaviour and their habitat requirements. In many places in Ontario, the destruction of suitable habitat is cause for concern. These snakes are completely harmless, but their bizarre defence technique can be confused with a dangerous display. When threatened, hog-nosed snakes will rear their head, flatten their neck to look like a cobra, and hiss loudly. If this display is not effective, the snake will harmlessly strike at the intruder with its mouth closed. The Eastern Hog-nosed snake has developed these techniques that resemble venomous snake activity as a defence mechanism to ward off predators. As a last resort the snake will finally roll over onto its back and play dead to convince their predator they are an unappetizing feast!
Hog-nosed snakes are fairly distinctive. They are a heavy-bodied snake with a shovel-like upturned snout and a grey/brown colour. Young snakes have irregular green and brown patches along their back, while adult snakes tend to be uniform in colour. A key feature of this snake is conspicuous black patches just behind their head. The average length is about 60 cm (2 feet), with a maximum length of one metre (three and a half feet). Often simply observing this behaviour is enough to determine it is a hog-nosed snake!
Most people run when they see a snake, but not the researchers at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park! The research team, made up of the park’s Natural Heritage Education staff, local naturalists and community volunteers are hoping to unravel the mysteries of this secretive snake. Within Ontario, Hog-nosed snakes are designated as threatened, indicating that this species is particularly at risk because of low or declining numbers, habitat loss, or some other undetermined reason. Our research will focus on the life history, microhabitat, and ecological requirements of the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon platyrhinos) in Wasaga Beach Provincial Park and the surrounding community.
When snakes are caught we take measurements relating to length, circumference, and mass to determine changes over time. We also take a small sample of blood to determine relationships within our population and to compare it to other known populations of Hog-nosed snakes. The snakes are only out of their natural setting for a few hours and are released back to the same point of capture.
One of the key aspects of our research is trying to figure out the size of the local hog-nosed population. By inserting a tiny microchip into the side of a snake we’ll be able to identify that individual if we recapture it at a future date. After a few years, we’ll be able to estimate the population based on the percentage of snakes we recover with microchips.
The other focus of our research is determining the seasonal movements of these snakes. This is accomplished through the use of radio telemetry equipment. We surgically implant snakes with radio transmitters and then track them every other day until they enter hibernation in the fall. The data from this study will help us assess habitat preferences and what areas of the park they like to use for feeding, shedding their skin, mating, and hibernating.
You can help the research team at Wasaga Beach Provincial Park by reporting any sightings of this snake as soon as possible. Please notify park staff by calling the park office 705-429-2516.