Three Species That Ontario Has Lost

As habitats shrink, these three animals have become ‘extirpated herptiles’ — reptiles and amphibians that are now regionally extinct in Ontario.

December 6, 2023 | | Notes from the Wild

Reptiles and amphibians have been under constant assault since the early days of European settlement in our province. They have been reduced dramatically over the past two centuries, victimized by the loss of wetlands and the conversion of forests to cities, roads, and agriculture.

We’ve lost three species of Ontario herptiles (reptiles and amphibians) in the modern era: timber rattlesnakes, eastern box turtles and northern cricket frogs. The label we assign to these provincial losses is “extirpated,” meaning regionally extinct.

Eastern box turtles, beautiful woodland denizens capable of living more than a century, occupied southern Ontario historically. Their shells have been found in the middens of First Nations people in the province, including an archeological site just south of Headwaters at Scotsdale Farm in Halton Region.

Eastern Box Turtle Ontario Shell

An eastern box turtle retreats into its shell. Photography by Don Scallen.

Eastern Box Turtle Ontario

The eastern box turtle, popping out to say hello.

Box turtles trundle through expansive home ranges, an itinerant lifestyle that served them well prior to roads, towns and large-scale agriculture. Such wandering in 21st century Ontario would put them at great peril, making any hopes for their reintroduction from the United States an unlikely prospect.

Timber rattlesnakes persisted in the Niagara River gorge until the 1940s. These large pit vipers were once widespread on the Niagara Escarpment, ranging at least as far north as Caledon. Like snakes everywhere, timber rattlers have long been heavily persecuted. They are especially vulnerable when they gather at hibernaculums (over-wintering refuges) in rocky areas. The Niagara Escarpment, with its crevices and cliffs, probably once harboured many of these hibernation sites.

Northern cricket frogs blinked out of existence quite recently. Their last stand in Ontario was Pelee Island. Their unique voices, likened to the sound made by clicking pebbles together, have been silenced.

Northern Cricket Frog in the river

A close up of the northern cricket frog, camouflaged amongst the mossy rocks of the river bank.

Northern Cricket Frog in river in Ontario

The northern cricket frog often has striking green marks on its back.

Northern Cricket Frog in Ontario river

The northern cricket frog can still be found in some parts of the United States.  

It’s unlikely that these three species will ever roam free in Ontario again. But we can ensure that other reptiles and amphibians in the province don’t suffer their fate. We need the will to conserve and protect the glorious herptiles that still call this patch of Turtle Island home.

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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