Brake for Snakes

When it comes to conserving Ontario’s endangered reptile species, there’s a long road ahead.
By Leslie Anthony

Though it’s unlikely to replace listening to the Jays on the radio, let’s imagine you’re driving through this province’s wild areas this summer thinking: “What can I do to help Ontario’s many reptile species-at-risk?” There are several things, but if you’re behind the wheel the first is this: Pay attention.

Along with habitat destruction, pollution and persecution, road mortality is the gravest threat to vulnerable species of snakes and turtles, tens of thousands of which meet a sticky end each year on Ontario’s roads as they move between mating, foraging, and hibernating areas. Highly trafficked cottage-bound roads have become veritable slaughterhouses for these animals. For instance, with wild habitat and wetlands on both sides, Highway 69 is a busy place for animal crossings; being the main link between Toronto and Sudbury, it’s also a busy place for humans, with few breaks between cars and not enough under-road crossings. It’s no coincidence that most of Ontario’s endangered reptiles inhabit this corridor along the eastern shore of Georgian Bay. When it comes to roads and cars, these slow-moving, unassuming animals have no idea of the danger they’re courting; when you see them on the pavement, however, they’re easy enough to avoid.

The past decade has seen an increase in signage to this effect around cottage country: Bright yellow “Brake for Snakes” and “Turtle Crossing” signs erected by local groups, who, in conjunction with the Ministry of Transportation, have identified high-mortality areas of roadway. It’s not the only thing being done to mitigate the carnage.

“We don’t know yet how to create fencing and tunnels that are universally used by frogs, salamanders, snakes and turtles,” says Megan Rasmussen, a turtle researcher and species-at-risk biologist. “Right now we throw a culvert in, but if you’re [cold-blooded], sometimes a warm road surface is a more enticing place to cross than a cool, shadowy tunnel. So we’re pursuing research and initiatives to create better ‘eco-passages’ for animals.”

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Despite a generally increased conservation awareness, populations of these animals are still in precipitous decline. Starting in June, turtles appear along most of Ontario’s highways, largely females looking for a place (sadly, often a sandy road shoulder) to nest. This is a huge problem for turtle species, already hampered by low numbers of offspring, low recruitment (few young survive to adulthood), and an average time to reproductive maturity of between 10 – 30 years. Because they live 60 – 100 years, many turtles killed crossing roads are 40+ year-old females that can’t be readily replaced, creating an instant sex bias in the population and making it even more vulnerable to extirpation. Snakes, with greater reproductive output, higher recruitment, and far less time to maturity, can show measurable recovery with conservation efforts while recovery in turtle populations is hard to study because their lifespans outlast the ability of individuals to monitor them.

But snakes have other problems. Few people are chopping up turtles with shovels because they’re afraid of them. The three species in the Georgian Bay area with official Threatened status (meaning it’s illegal to harm them) are the eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, the fox snake and the hognose snake. Only the Massasauga is venomous—though its shy, retreating ways mean it’s not considered dangerous—but all are large, brownish and blotched, and thus regularly confused: Massasauga and hognose are stout-bodied; fox snakes and hognose can have light-coloured backgrounds; fox snakes are “rattling” snakes that vibrate their pointed tails, possibly capitalizing on rattlesnake mimicry. Add to this that the more common and harmless northern watersnake is often mislabeled a “water moccasin” and confused with all three, and you can see how they’ve all ended up on the endangered list. People seem to have no qualms about killing a snake on their property or on the highway.

What can you do when you see these animals on a road? Slow down and let them cross. If it’s a turtle and you’re comfortable with doing so, pick it up and move it off the road in the direction it was headed. Don’t take it home or go out of your way to put it into water—it knows where it’s going; and hopefully that’s not toward extinction.

DIY
Info on reptiles-at-risk programs:

Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve has two excellent and informative videos, At-Risk Turtles, Snakes and Frogs of Georgian Bay, and Working in Massasauga Habitat which also contain links to other information. The Canadian National Recovery Team for the Massassauga Rattlesnake also has an informative web site.

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