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Eastern Foxsnake

Pantherophis vulpinus

Family: Colubridae

COSEWIC status:
  • Endangered (Carolinian population)
  • Endangered (Great Lakes / St. Lawrence population)
SARA status:
  • Endangered (Carolinian population)
  • Endangered (Great Lakes / St. Lawrence population)
IUCN status:
  • Least Concern

Description

The Eastern Foxsnake is yellow to light brown with large, dark brown blotches down the back and two alternating rows of smaller blotches along the sides. Adults and subadults have a reddish brown head with dark bars around the eyes and a yellow chin. Its belly, which is also yellow, has alternating brown to black patches. Young juveniles usually have a grey head and body with dark-bordered reddish brown blotches on the back and sides, and a white to grey belly with blotches.  The scales of this species are lightly keeled and its anal plate is divided. The Eastern Foxsnake is a large snake that can reach a length of up to 1.8 m, although most individuals are smaller.

Similar Species

The Eastern Foxsnake may be confused with the Northern Watersnake, Milksnake, Eastern Hog-nosed Snake and the Massasauga. The Northern Watersnake’s patterning consists of horizontal banding rather than blotches and in larger adults is often very faint on a much darker background. The Milksnake can appear very similar to young foxsnakes, though the Milksnake has smooth scales and a distinct black outline around each blotch. The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake has a distinct upturned snout and robust body. The Massasauga has a stout body, usually a rattle on a blunt tail, vertical pupils and a triangular head. When threatened, the Eastern Foxsnake vibrates its tail and, especially when it comes into contact with dry vegetation, makes a buzzing or “rattling” sound. This behaviour, combined with the snake’s blotchy patterning, causes people to mistake it for a rattlesnake. The reddish-orange colour of the adult’s head has also resulted in the name “copperhead”, which is confusing because a Copperhead is an altogether different species found in the U.S. 

Distribution

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In Ontario, the Eastern Foxsnake is found in two widely separated populations, one is scattered throughout parts of southwestern Ontario, and one along the eastern shores of Georgian Bay and associated Islands. Although the species also occurs in Michigan and Ohio, a large proportion of the global distribution of this species occurs in Canada. In the Georgian Bay area, Foxsnakes are typically only found within 1 km of the shoreline.

Habitat

Eastern Foxsnakes generally use open habitats such as shorelines, prairies, savannahs, rock barrens, forest clearings or edges and wetlands. This species also uses forests, primarily as movement corridors. Females lay their eggs in rotten logs, stumps, decaying leaf piles and other features with appropriate temperature and humidity. Although foxsnsakes still occur in some human-dominated landscape in southwestern Ontario, they avoid areas of intensive agricultural, such as corn and soybean fields. This species hibernates below the frost line in rock crevices, animal burrows or anthropogenic structures such as old foundations or wells.

Biology

The Eastern Foxsnake breeds in May and June and females typically lay 15–20 eggs, which hatch in the late summer or early fall. Hatchlings are 25–30 cm long. In parts of southwestern Ontario where suitable nesting habitat is scarce, several females may use the same nesting site. Individuals likely reach maturity in their third year and can live for close to 20 years. Foxsnakes are excellent climbers and can often be found foraging in shrubs and trees. Eastern Foxsnakes in the eastern Georgian Bay population are also highly aquatic, and they can swim great distances between islands. Foxsnakes eat mainly small mammals, as well as birds’ eggs or young birds. Foxsnakes overwinter in communal hibernacula (overwintering sites), and over 200 snakes have been observed using a single hibernaculum in the eastern Georgian Bay population. The Eastern Foxsnake is not venomous.

Threats

Habitat loss has been especially pronounced in southwestern Ontario, where much of the natural habitat has been converted to intensive agricultural uses. Road mortality is also a serious threat to this species. These snakes are very active and, especially in southwestern Ontario where road density is very high, frequently cross roads. Persecution also continues to threaten this species; people often kill the foxsnake on sight, mistaking it for a venomous rattlesnake.

Additional Information About This Species In Canada