The Huron County snake that pretends to be something it's not

Researchers are tracking the Eastern hog-nosed snake around Huron County in Ontario. The snake, which is on Ontario's Species at Risk list, is harmless but will act like a venomous snake as a defensive mechanism.

The non-venomous Eastern hog-nosed snake will flare its neck and hiss like a cobra as a defensive mechanism

The Eastern hog-nosed snake is listed as 'threatened' on Ontario's Species at Risk list. That means it isn't endangered now, but could become so in the future. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Up in Huron County, researchers are keeping their ears cocked for the distinctive hissing sound of the Eastern hog-nosed snake. 

The snake, which is listed as 'threatened' on Ontario's Species at Risk list, is harmless and non-venomous. But it tries to act like it isn't.

When threatened, the snake will hiss and flare its neck to look like a cobra. It will even act as though it's striking out to bite you.

"Even if it hit your hand, it wouldn't bite it. It would be with a closed mouth," said Rachel White, who is stewardship coordinator for the Huron Stewardship Council. She is leading efforts to track the snake. 

"It's not lunging to bite you, it's lunging to scare you away," she said.

The Eastern hog-nosed snake isn't venomous, but will flare its neck like a cobra to try to scare away predators. If that doesn't work, it will ooze a musky scent and roll around in it. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

If that doesn't work, the snake oozes a musky fluid and rolls around in it, in an attempt to make itself seem less appetizing. White said the musky smell is 'indescribable,' but extremely memorable.

"Once you smell it once, you'll never forget that smell," she said.

Other characteristics of the Eastern hog-nosed snake include:

  • A distinctive, upturned snout
  • A thick body, much wider than a milk snake
  • Splotches that fade into a dark olive green colour in adulthood
  • A yellow belly

Tracking in Huron County

The snake was seen for the first time in Huron County in 2011 and it was spotted just a handful of times between then and 2016.

Researchers counted 50 sightings of the snake in 2017 — thanks to help from hikers.

"That made us very optimistic and it was clear to us that there was perhaps a larger population here than we had once expected," said White.

Rachel White (right) and her team with the Huron Stewardship Council are leading efforts to track the Eastern hognose snake. In partnership with Laurentian University, they're implanting snakes with radio transmitters so they can track the snake population. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

In a partnership with Laurentian University this summer, White's team is capturing snakes and outfitting them with radio transmitters so that they can track where the snakes are going and what the total size of the population is. 

Her team has received $90,000 through the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry for the project.

Why care about a smelly snake?

The snake's 'threatened' status means that it isn't endangered now, but it could become so if steps aren't taken to protect it.

White said the snake mainly preys on toads and plays an important role in Ontario's food chain. If the snake is diminished or lost it could have consequences for the environment.

"Certainly all species at risk and all animals in an ecosystem have an important part to play," she said.

Members of the public who see — or hear — the snake can report it using Ontario's Reptile and Amphibian Atlas App.

White said she hopes that people do.

"It's a very difficult snake to find, and we've only been able to get the observations that we have from reports from the public," she said.