The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake – The Drama Queen of The Land Between
Article by Basil Conlin
Phote by Joe Crowley
The granite barrens, sandy soils, and pine woodlands of The Land Between provide some of the best habitat in Ontario for a special animal and a very talented actor. The eastern hog-nosed snake (Heterodon platirhinos) is a harmless species of thick-bodied snake that occurs throughout eastern North America, south to Texas and reaching the upper part of its range in central Ontario. It is so named because of it’s shovel-shaped head, perfectly built for burrowing in soft, sandy soils. In Ontario, this snake is found in its largest concentrations within The Land Between Ecotone, particularly the Parry Sound area, in addition to a large and well-studied population at Long Point Provincial Park along the north shore of Lake Erie.
In additions to their amazing shovel-shaped head, hog-nosed snakes are rear-fanged, meaning they have a small pair of fangs and weak venom glands way at the back of their mouths which give the snakes an adorable, chubby-cheeked appearance. The reason for these tiny fangs is simple: eastern hog-nosed snakes love to eat toads! But toads don’t especially love to be eaten by hog-nosed snakes. If a toad is unlucky enough to find itself being eaten, it will puff itself up many times with air in an attempt to become too large for the snake to swallow. This is where those handy rear-fangs come in. With a carefully placed pop, the hog-nosed snake can deflate its prey like an old balloon, and swallow its meal.
The venom in these fangs is weak and harmless to humans and pets (unless your pet is a toad). Hog-nosed snakes are often quite docile and reluctant to bite, and their fangs are too far in the back of their mouths to pierce a human. They are made strictly for popping and stunning toads.
Hog-nosed snakes have many nick-names. “Toad-popper” might be a good one, but a more common regional name is “puff adder” (a real puff adder is a venomous species of old world snake, found in Africa). This local name was given due to this species’ amazing and dramatic defensive strategy. When hog-nosed snakes feel threatened they will flatten their necks in a way similar to a cobra in order to make themselves appear larger. Then, rather than bite when faced with a potential predator, hog-nosed snakes will hiss and contort, flipping themselves over onto their backs with their mouths open in a pose of pure agony, then remain immobile until the threat has retreated. To the uninitiated, it would seem that the hog-nosed snake had died of fright. Indeed, they will sometimes defecate on themselves during this process to make the entire play more convincing. But, it was all just a very elaborate act! “The Drama Queen of The Land Between” has survived another encounter with a predator thanks to some fantastic acting skills, and can slither away for another day. Feigning death is a unique strategy, one of many characteristics that make this species special.
Sadly, eastern hog-nosed snakes appear to be dying off for real in many parts of Ontario. Due to multiple factors including loss of sandy pine barrens and open woodland and grassland habitat, as well as human persecution, hog-nosed snakes have been listed as Threatened in Ontario, meaning it is illegal to harm or harass them or their habitat. Possibly the biggest threat to the hog-nosed snake’s long-term survival in Ontario is death on roads, what ecologists refer to as “road mortality”. Much of southern Ontario has been cut up by criss-crossing roads and highways that span hundreds of kilometres and fragment thousands of acres of habitat. Because hog-nosed snakes are thick bodied and slow moving, they often become road kill while trying to cross roads to get to hibernation sites and breeding sites, and several once thriving populations have collapsed after the introduction of new roads.
Interestingly, paved roads seem to deter hog-nosed snakes from crossing as they prefer to cross dirt roads (Robson et al. 2012). This could actually cause populations to become genetically isolated, which means that snakes on either side of a large road cannot cross and mate with each other. This can lead to many problems, such as genetic bottlenecks that happen when too many bad genes accumulate due to isolation. Efforts are underway to build fencing along roads to block reptiles and amphibians (known as ‘herps’) from crossing and install tunnels under roads specifically for reptiles to use, known as ‘eco-passages’. Eco-passages installed in Pinery, Killbear, Algonquin, Presq’ile, and Longpoint Provincial Parks have shown promising results in curbing reptile and amphibian road mortality, but more work is still to be done.
With a little effort, eastern hog-nose snakes can remain a part of our unique cultural, spiritual, and natural history for many centuries to come. To help this species, respect speed limits on roads to avoid hitting snakes. You can also help snakes cross roads by carefully moving them in the direction they are heading. If you are not confident that the snake is not a massassauga rattlesnake (our only venomous snake, present mostly in the Georgian Bay area with a few isolated populations near Windsor) or if you don’t want to touch a snake, you can encourage the animal to move by gently pushing it with a shovel or similar object, taking care not to harm the animal. Never pick up a snake by the tail, you could accidentally injure it.
Snakes overwinter in group sites known as ‘hibernacula’, often in open, rocky areas. Developers should be aware of any hibernacula present on properties and should take measures to avoid damaging these sites, often used by the same populations for centuries. Displacing these sites could cause populations to collapse, or cause snakes to start using your basement to hibernate in instead. Education is extremely important in the recovery of this species. If you know someone who is scared of snakes, you can educate them on all the benefits and joy that snakes bring to the wild. Ontario wouldn’t be the same without them!
If you see an eastern hog-nose snake, report your sightings! Sightings of rare species can be reported online to The Land Betweens “Report a Species” page: https://www.thelandbetween.ca/conservation-tools/report-a-rare-species/
As well as to the Ontario Herp Atlas at Ontario Nature.