Featured Contributor Jessica Ferguson: Hello, Hog-Nose!

I know I am likely the exception here, but I think snakes are cute. And if I were asked to pick just one super-cute, super-endearing snake species, I would pick the Hog-nosed Snake.

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Aww! Photo courtesy of Ontario Nature. Photographer: Sterling Sztricsko

The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) is a quirky Ontario native. This species can be easily identified by its upturned rostral scale (the snout) that gives it its “hog-nosed” appearance. They are heavy-bodied, growing to 50-85 cm on average, and are highly variable in colour and pattern. They can display a grey, brown, tan, yellow, or olive background colour with darker blotches down the back, and smaller blotches running down the sides. Some individuals lack blotches, and they can also display unique pigmentations such as melanism (this condition is an over-production of the skin pigment “melanin”, resulting in a black snake! This is also seen in mammals, such as our common Eastern Grey Squirrel).

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An individual with a high-contrast pattern. Photo courtesy of Ontario Nature. Photographer: Joe Crowley

The species can be found in rocky and sandy habitats, and use their upturned snouts to burrow and excavate laying areas. They typically lay between 10 and 20 eggs, which hatch after approximately 2 months of incubation.

Toads and frogs make up a large part of their diet, but they are opportunistic and will also snack on rodents and insects, if given the chance.

A hoggie doing its best Cobra impression. Photographer: Cowan Belanger

A hoggie doing its best Cobra impression. Photographer: Cowan Belanger

Hog-nosed snakes have some incredibly ingenious (or maybe incredibly silly?) defensive mechanisms, and are the drama queens of the snake world. When a Hog-nosed Snake feels threatened, it will raise its head and flatten out its wide neck into a Cobra-like hood while hissing menacingly. They are sometimes labeled as “puff adders” or “hissing adders” for this reason. Although they will sometimes throw false strikes, this is typically just to intimidate predators. Hog-nosed snakes rarely bite. But the crown jewel of their defensive mechanisms is playing dead. Yes, playing dead. If the snake feels that his very scary Cobra imitation isn’t doing the trick, it will flip onto its back, emit a foul-smelling musk, and let its tongue fall out of its mouth. Pretty convincing. In fact, the snake is so dedicated to its act that if you were to flip it right-side-up, it will angrily flip onto its back again!

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“Fear me!” Photographer: Cowan Belanger

Despite the nicknames, the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is not related to adders. The species is harmless to humans. They are, however, “rear-fanged venomous”. Don’t worry, it sounds worse than it is. They do have a very mild venom (think along the lines of a bee sting) that is used to immobilize prey, and is injected through fangs at the back of its mouth via rigorous chewing. Again, totally harmless to humans unless you have a bee venom allergy. But who really lets a wild animal chew on them, anyway?!

The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake holds the status of “Threatened” in Ontario, due to their superficial similarity to a rattlesnake, compounded with their “adder” misnomer, and are often persecuted by those who are uneducated and fearful. They are also subject to habitat loss and road mortality, like many other reptile species in Ontario.

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“I’m definitely dead!” Photographer: Cowan Belanger

Overall, the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is a unique, endearing, and misunderstood species. Though a listed species at risk, they are still an important part of Ontario’s natural landscape and there is work being done to strengthen the wild population. If you see a hoggie while out on a hike, take a photo, report it to the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas, and give it the respect that all snakes deserve.

Photo courtesy of Ontario Nature. Photographer Scott Gillingwater

Photo courtesy of Ontario Nature. Photographer Scott Gillingwater

Fin.

11351171_10153381452146810_3713036117191289221_nWritten by Jessica Ferguson