I smell a rat

16th July, World Snake Day

The region of southern Ontario where I was lucky enough to be able to stay for a couple of weeks in the first half of July holds an important yet threatened population of the Gray Ratsnake, Pantherophis spiloides. While participating in the memorable BIOSPHERE Youth Environmental Leadership Expedition at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) on the shores of Lake Opinicon, the enthusiastic program leader Dr. Shelley Ball interrupted our dinner one evening with a Gray Ratsnake she had just hand-caught. Perhaps one of the few things I will stop dinner for!

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Gray Ratsnake being held by Shelley

Gray Ratsnakes are one of Canada’s largest snakes. They are the largest in terms of length, with adult able to reach over six feet from head to tail, but are pipped by Bullsnakes with regard to mass.

During the expedition at QUBS, we were treated to a short presentation by Matt and Meg who are working on how to prevent the decline of this sizeable snake. One of the leading causes of fatalities in this species is road collisions. The dark colouration of the ratsnakes means that they are often mistaken for the shadows of overhead branches on roads, and are therefore not noticed by motorists. Even when they are recognised as snakes drivers have a hard time avoiding them, as due to their length they can easily stretch across the entire width of the road.

On account of this, Matt and Meg are working on avoiding these snake RTAs by reducing the incidences of snakes crossing the road. They are helping to develop snake-proof fences which aim to guide the snakes to specially-built culverts which they can use to get to the other side of the road without risking being hit. Gray Ratsnakes are semi-arboreal and spend lots of their time in trees, so are adept climbers. The fences to be implemented, therefore, need to be resistant to climbing by these agile snakes. Creating fences that not even ratsnakes can ascend also prevents a wide variety of other wildlife such as turtles from being hit and allows them to utilise the culverts as well.

Gray Ratsnakes are remarkably docile and are rarely aggressive when handheld. When threatened they do possess the abilility to release the contents of the cloaca, musking the assailant with a foul smell. However, the related Northern Water Snake behaves in this manner with far greater regularity. It, like the Gray Ratsnake, is non-venomous, so has to make itself as unappealing to predators as possible, by releasing both musk and excrement. Despite the lack of venom, the bites are still painful and the saliva of the Northern Water Snake has an anticoagulant which causes the bite to bleed more freely. However, although it might sound threatening, the water snake is another fascinating reptile.

I had the good fortune of glimpsing a Northern Water Snake on one occasion at QUBS as it swam past the boathouse. As its name suggests, it is a very strong swimmer. It will take sleeping fish at night in shallow water and during the day it will hunt other prey such as crayfish and amphibians among vegetation at the water’s edge.

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Northern Water Snake snaking through the water at the QUBS boathouse

To finish off this post for World Snake Day, I’ll mention the third species of snake we encountered on our expedition at QUBS, which was also the most numerous. The Common Garter Snake is, as its name suggests, frequent, but also fairly skittish. As a result, they are difficult reptiles to photograph. However, nearing the end of the expedition we disturbed one from a pile of dead leaves near the library. It retreated to a stone wall, from which it poked its head out to survey the scene, giving a rare opportunity to photograph this species.

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A curious Common Garter Snake.

The Common Garter Snake, like all but one snake in Ontario, is another non-venomous species. Snakes are often misrepresented as being solely dangerous creatures. However, less than a fifth of the world’s snake species are considered a threat to human health, with very few venomous snakes being found in the more populated temperature regions of the world. Instead of being feared, snakes should be more appreciated for their incredible diversity and fascinating range of habits.

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Blackfish

I was incredibly lucky to be able to visit the lovely country of Canada over the summer holidays. We visited both Toronto and Vancouver during our stay, but most of it was spent at Knight Inlet lodge just north of Vancouver. This lodge is excellent for Grizzly Bear viewing, especially in autumn when they are actively fishing for salmon. However, definitely one of the highlights of the trip was the day we went whale watching in Johnstone Strait with a special focus on Orcas.

It was a long boat ride to the spot where the Orcas were last seen, but it was worth it when we got there. It took a while to actually locate the Orcas though, they are surprisingly hard to spot. Every breaking wave looked like an Orca to me! Even when we did finally catch sight of them they were easy to lose track of as they can hold their breath for as long as 12 minutes! They also move quickly; the synonym ‘Killer Whale’ is a misnomer as they are actually members of the dolphin family rather than the much slower moving whales. To give you an indication of size, the largest male we saw had a dorsal fin that measured around 6 feet! That’s more than 1.8 metres!

Our guide, Paul, seemed to have predicted where the Orcas would be and had no hesitation when zooming at full speed towards the spot where they were. However, he was actually heading towards a position relayed to him from an Orca watch team, which watch an area of the strait for quite a lot of the year. You must be patient for that job! There is also a team which act as a sort of ‘Orca police’, which go around in a speedboat making sure everyone is sticking to the rule that you can’t be within 100 metres of an Orca unless it comes to you.

Once we were into the groove of Orca watching, they seemed to be everywhere. They kept on surfacing around the boat and it seemed like there were hundreds of them! There turned out to be only thirty or so, but due to their ability to hold their breath so long they kept on appearing at completely different positions from when they were last seen.

You may be wondering why the title of the post is ‘Blackfish’. Well, coincidentally the lodge had a talk on Orcas the following evening and I learnt a lot. I found out that there was a movie called Blackfish made about a particular Orca that was held captive at SeaWorld for a long time called Tilikum. He was caught near Iceland in 1983 measuring 13 feet, but he now measures 22 feet and is the largest Orca in captivity. He was taken away from his home and family at only 2 years old and was kept in a tiny holding tank where all an Orca could do is float and swim in small circles. He was eventually transferred to Sealand of the Pacific, a rundown park in British Columbia where his pool was only 100 by 50 feet and was just 35 feet deep. He relentlessly performed every hour, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week and when the park closed he was crammed into a tiny round module with 2 other female Orcas until the next morning.

The rundown park closed after Tilikum and the two other female Orcas dragged a trainer down to the bottom of the pool and tossed her around until she drowned. Tilikum was put up for sale and was bought by SeaWorld for a captive breeding programme. For 21 years Tilikum lived in SeaWorld, in a tank that contained only 0.0001 percent of the amount of water that he would travel through in only a day in the wild. This was clearly stressful for the Orca, and he started chewing on the edges of the tank, which wore down his teeth substantially. He also had a collapsed dorsal fin, which is very common in captivity but rare in the wild. He even killed 2 more people! After the last death he was put in isolation in such a small tank that he couldn’t swim. He would float aimlessly for hours at a time. In the wild, even when an Orca is sleeping it never stops moving!

We watched the Orcas for around 2 and a half hours and I never got bored. If the Orcas weren’t showing (which was rare), we still had Dall’s Porpoises, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Fin Whales, Humpback Whales, Harbour Seals and even a group of male Steller’s Sealions to entertain us! Birds were amazing too, the highlight being a lone Cassin’s Auklet among hundreds of Rhinoceros Auklets and thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes combing the water’s surface.

Orcas

Orcas

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet

Red-necked Phalaropes

Red-necked Phalaropes

Steller's Sealions

Steller’s Sealions