The eastern hognose snake is like the kid on the playground who wears his dad’s leather jacket to school: all show and no go.
The once-common snake is capable of an impressive and terrifying defensive display in which it flattens its head like a cobra, hisses, and rattles its tail.
But it’s all a ruse: the eastern hognose doesn’t bite and isn’t venomous. When it strikes, it does so with a closed mouth. Its only other defensive manoeuvre is to play dead, lolling its tongue out to the side.
Like many endangered species, the snake suffers public persecution (more so because of the fearsome display than the lolled-out tongue).
“Humans have evolved to be scared of snakes,” says Mhairi McFarlane, conservation science manager with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. “Trying to encourage people to think differently about them can be quite challenging. If people have the opportunity to see snakes in education centres it can be incredibly valuable, to understand how cool these animals are.”
The eastern hognose is a threatened species, but if steps are taken to address its decline, it could become endangered. The main threat it faces is habitat loss — something many species on the at-risk list must contend with.
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“The majority of southwestern Ontario has been largely converted to agricultural and urban uses,” says Joe Crowley, a species-at-risk specialist with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. “The natural habitat that does remain is in patches not large enough to support any reptile population.”
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The 2008 Endangered Species Act has helped put the brakes on further habitat loss, but the eastern hognose still faces a significant threat from cars, since the snake frequently crosses roads.
“Hognose snakes need a mosaic of different things: they need open, sunny, sandy soil to lay their eggs, but they also need wetland areas, which support the toads they eat. And of course toads need wetlands to breed. And they need cover to hide from predators,” McFarlane says.
The key to recovery for the eastern hognose mirrors that of many Ontario reptiles at risk — namely, reduced road deaths and restored habitats. Under the Endangered Species Act, new roads built where the eastern hognose lives must include features such as fencing and tunnel crossings to keep cars from hitting the snakes.
“A good example was the Highway 69–Highway 400 extension in eastern Georgian Bay,” Crowley says. “The permit for that road, because it was cutting through the species habitat ... there was an authorization that required mitigation of that stretch of road. So fencing, eco-passages — everything we could do to reduce the overall mortality.”
The prognosis for the eastern hognose is good, provided the province can reduce the number of snakes that are killed by cars. Old roads pose a greater challenge, because they are not subject to the Act and aren’t required to have features that help snakes cross safely.
“That's where the real challenge is — mitigating the mortality on existing roads,” Crowley says. There's going to be a lot of work.”