Wild Profile: Meet the Eastern fox snake

Published: May 5, 2020

Male Eastern fox snake By Ryan M. Bolton/Shutterstock

Don’t get spooked if you see an Eastern fox snake this spring. For one thing, you’re lucky: the species—one of Ontario’s largest snakes—has been endangered for more than a decade now. And fox snakes are docile, even though, when threatened, they’ll coil and vibrate their tails, rattler-like. That’s a bluff, though. They have a weak, non-venomous bite (and they’ll rarely bite a person).

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Eastern fox snakes are long—imagine 12 hot dog buns lined up end-to-end—and bulky. They can grow as thick as a vacuum cleaner hose. As constrictors, they kill by coiling around their prey (usually mice and birds) and squeezing to death, then swallowing the meal whole. It takes a snake about one week to fully digest whatever they ate.

Fox snakes emerge from their underground dens, often repurposed mammal burrows, in May. They’ve spent the winter hunkering down with several snake buddies. When spring hits, they go their separate ways. If you do spot one, it’ll likely be sunning itself on a flat rock, trying to warm its cold blood. Snakes need to raise their temperature to a certain range for their bodies to function properly.

Eastern fox snake numbers are so low largely because of habitat loss and high traffic; they’re frequently hit by cars. But, like a lot of snakes, they’re also killed intentionally. Part of the problem? They’re easily mistaken for Massasauga rattlesnakes—even though the venomous snakes are smaller, with an arrow-shaped head and a different body colour. Also? Fox snakes stink: when they’re disturbed, they emit a musky, or even skunk-like odour. Not that you should get close enough to try to smell one.

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