by Pam Mills, Wildlife Technician
Many people have a fear of snakes that they can't quite place. It is not surprising really, when you consider how consistently snakes are portrayed as evil figures in literature, art, and the media. Most of us think of snakes as deadly and slimy. In warmer parts of the world, snakes can be both those thing. However, in Nova Scotia, where it is relatively cool much of the year and actually cold for several months, snakes are quite small and harmless. And they aren't slimy.
Snakes are reptiles that have elongated bodies and no limbs. They do not have external or internal ears. Almost the entire body of a snake is covered with scales, which prevent moisture loss from their skin. Many species are cryptically coloreds, which protects them from predators and camouflages them while hunting. If they feel threatened, they can hiss, strike out, try to bite their attacker, dart away quickly, or roll over on their backs.
There are approximately 2,700 snake species in the world. Individually species can adapt to specific local habitat condition, which enables them to occupy most habitats throughout the world. Most snakes in Eastern Canada are at the northern limit of their geographical range.
Nova Scotia has five native snake species, all members of the order Squamata (covered with scales). The northern ribbon snake is found in the south-central area of the province, while the northern ringneck snake is found in uplands of deciduous or mixed wood forests and on parts of Cape Breton Island. The northern redbelly, eastern smooth green, and Maritime garter snake are found throughout the province.
Snakes are cold-blooded animals. Their body temperatures fluctuate with the temperature of the environment in which they find themselves. Here, they hibernate below ground for about six months each year because of the cold.
They find their prey using a specialized organ in the roof of their mouth called the jocobson's organ, which provides something similar to a sense of smell. Their long, forked tongue picks up particles from odours, which the brain deciphers when the snake sticks ins tongue into this two-holed organ. In this way, the snake detects its prey without eye contact.
Snakes are known for their ability to eat prey that is much larger that their head. The lower jaw is loosely connected to the skull, and the two halves of the lower jaw are connected by a ligament. This allows the snake to open its mouth very wide and spread its lower jaws apart to engulf larger prey. This is an important ability, since one meal may have to provide the snake with nutrients and energy for extended periods. Snakes in Nova Scotia prey on insects, worms, rodents amphibians, and other snakes.
Hawks, owls, foxes, raccoons, domestic cats, and other snakes prey on snakes. In other parts of the world, humans kill snakes for their skin to make leather for boots, belts, and purses. Many of these products are illegal under the Committee on International Trade in Endangered Species.
Most complaints about snakes inhabiting human dwellings involve garter snakes. If you have a problem with snakes in your basement or garage, you can try placing a pile of damp burlap bags to attract them. Once the snakes have collected in the burlap bags, the pile can be removed with a shovel. This can be repeated until all the snakes have been removed. Windows and doors to basements must be closed, and cracks where snakes can enter have to be filled to keep them from returning.
Snakes are an integral part of the natural ecosystems in Nova Scotia and are protected under the Provincial Wildlife Act. Snakes eat many of the insects we consider to be pests, and they provide food for a variety of other wildlife. Chances to observe snakes at length are limited, since they are usually wary of human contact. You have to be quick and persistent if you want to find them. If you're successful though, the experience is well worth the effort.
The Northern Ringneck Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwards)
The Maritime Garter Snake (Thamnophos sirtalis palidula)|
The Eastern Smooth Green Snake (Opheodrys vernalis vernalis)|
The Northern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophos sauritus septentrionalis)|
The Northern Redbelly Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata occipitomaculata)|