Ontario Rattlesnakes and Their Mimics

Rattlesnakes in Ontario are largely harmless, save for the Massasauga rattlesnake, the only venomous one in the province.

January 8, 2024 | | Notes from the Wild

Rattlesnakes are not the demons many of us perceive them to be. In Ontario, death by rattlesnake is almost as rare as death by meteorite. Only two documented deaths have been recorded in the province, both over four decades ago. Importantly, neither victim sought medical care.

Massasauga rattlesnakes are the only species of venomous serpent that remain in Ontario. Timber rattlesnakes have vanished, victims of human fear and habitat loss. Massasauga rattlesnakes are now restricted to the Georgian Bay area and a tiny outpost on the Niagara Peninsula. They continue to inspire fear where they persist, and this fear, regrettably, extends to non-venomous snakes, even in locations far from rattlesnake country.

Throughout North America, many harmless species of snakes have evolved to mimic rattlesnakes. The evolutionary advantage is clear. Predators that recoil from rattlesnakes will also recoil from them.

In Ontario these rattlesnake mimics include eastern foxsnakes, milksnakes and eastern hog-nosed snakes. Only one, the milksnake, slithers through Headwaters. These harmless snakes have colours and patterns similar to rattlesnakes, but that convergence may have simply arisen from the need to conceal themselves in similar habitats. It may not have anything to do with mimicry.

The clear – and fascinating – mimicry is behavioural. Foxsnakes, milksnakes and hog-nosed snakes all vibrate the tips of their tails when alarmed. In grass or dry leaves, a rustling sound is produced, evoking the warning buzz of rattlesnakes.

Though rattlesnake mimicry has likely served these snakes well for millennia, it is now dysfunctional in areas where Homo sapiens dominate. While many wild predators will back off when the tails of these snakes vibrate, many people respond with aggression, killing the snakes with the nearest rock or shovel.

If you fear serpents, please understand that all Headwaters snakes are harmless. And know, too, that even in the parts of Ontario where massasaugas persist, the risk to life and limb is very, very small.

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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Comments

2 Comments

  1. Hello Lynne,

    I understand your concern, but please consider my comments.

    1)Massasauga rattlesnakes are not known from the Huntsville area. It is quite likely you were bitten by one of the rattlesnake mimics I mention in the article.

    2)Let’s assume that you were bitten by a rattlesnake, however. Chances of survival, even without treatment, are excellent. However, I salute your father for seeking quick medical attention.

    3)To your point that we should not be concerned about the extinction of this “deadly species” I reiterate what I mentioned in the article that only two people in Ontario have died from a rattlesnake bite, over recorded history.

    Please consider that domestic dogs hurt and kill many, many more people than rattlesnakes do. According to CP24, there were 1,316 domestic dog attacks in Toronto alone in 2022. Of course, we should do
    what we can to mitigate such attacks, but that won’t involve banning pet dogs.

    Further, the most dangerous animal by far is us. We’re all at much greater risk from other human beings than we are of wild animals.

    And few of us are afraid of driving in a car, but in 2022 according to the OPP, 359 people lost their lives on provincial roads in Ontario.

    Massasauga rattlesnakes are magnificent creatures that deserve to remain with us here in Ontario. As I’ve tried to emphasize, they pose very little risk to you and I.

    Don Scallen

    Don Scallen on Feb 8, 2024 at 9:30 am | Reply

  2. could you please contact me?
    I was bitten by a Massassaga Ratler in Pen Lake, Huntsville, ON in 1963.
    It was only because my dad was a race car driver at the Toronto CNE that I am alive. There was NO hospital in the town of Huntsville, ON at that time and my dad had to make a record time (45 mins) getting to the hospital in toronto for me to be on anti/venim medication as a 7 year old. How on earth can this deadly species be a concern about becoming extinct!!??!!!!!!

    Lynne Brioux on Jan 30, 2024 at 3:59 am | Reply

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