Yes, there are snakes in Quebec — and they could use a little help

Our slithering friends, snakes, have seen their habitats in the province dwindle as they disappear to new developments, but a group of biologists is trying to counter that.

Biologists are trying to make the most of the few snake habitats left around Montreal

The small brown snake is one of three snake species in Quebec and it's the most at risk. It has been losing its habitat to development over the years. (CBC)

As far as snakes are concerned — or constricted — we usually try to stay away from them and they us. 

That makes it hard to keep tabs on each other, so you couldn't be blamed for not knowing that most of the slithering species in Quebec (they're all harmless) are at risk. 

Many of their shrub-like habitats in and around Montreal have been disrupted by new construction and development projects, leaving the critters who tend not to venture far scrambling for refuge and food.

And conservation efforts have focused on forest and wetland habitats, rather than the meadows of shrub you're likely to find on the side of the highway. 

But it's in that midway point between field and forest that snakes do best, according to Sébastien Rouleau, the research and conservation coordinator at the Ecomuseum in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. 

Protect shrub lands, say biologists

Rouleau is one of their champions. He is part of a group of biologists who have been building what they call "snake dens" in protected areas, helped with a $25,900 Hydro-Québec grant.

Sébastien Rouleau, of Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue's Ecomuseum, and the snake den he helped build. (CBC)

One is in Pierrefonds's Bois-de-Liesse Park, another can be found — by the snakes, that is — in Pointe-aux-Prairies Park in Île-Bizard. Before 2019, there should be two new habitats at the Deux-Montagnes Wildlife Refuge and in the Îles-de-Boucherville provincial park.

"We're working with cities so they consider the shrub lands and grasslands into their conservation priority because right now they don't," Rouleau said. 

Brown snake most at risk

The serpent most at risk in the province is the brown snake, at less than 35 centimetres long, the smallest of the three kinds that live here. 

The other two are the milk snake, another rarity, and the garter snake, which is much more common and can grow up to a metre-and-a-half in length. 

Garter snakes are the bigger and more common snake species in Quebec. They are recognizable by their black bodies with yellow vertical stripes. (CBC)

"It surprises people," Rouleau said, acknowledging the garter snake is bigger and longer than you'd think. For one, they're usually curled up when people happen upon them. 

"Usually, when they find a snake, they often think it's exotic and it's been released as a pet. Most people are not aware that we have that many snake species in Quebec."

Fear not, though, Rouleau says, snakes here can't harm people. If you pick one up and it feels threatened, it could try to bite you, just like any other small animal, but there won't be any venom involved in this neck of the shrubs.

'They're really gentle'

CBC Montreal reporter Simon Nakonechny, left, got to hold a benevolent milk snake at the Ecomuseum. It even tried to go up his sleeve! (CBC)

"They're pretty shy," he said. "You could walk for a day and not see any, unless you flip rocks to find them. Other than that, they're really gentle."

One of its few defences against predators is what Rouleau calls a "yellow musk," a stinky substance it sprays when it feels menaced. 

The den Rouleau has helped make in Bois-de-Liesse is something of a fortress any snake would feel safe in, though. 

It's a mound about two metres tall designed to help the snakes go underground to escape the cold and, alternatively, heat. 

The snake den in Bois-de-Liesse is next to the highway, but Rouleau says it's not a huge danger because snakes don't venture far and wouldn't try to cross such a scary structure. The shingles on the den provide a warm place for the snakes to hide under. (CBC)

It's an intricate pile of rocks allowing the serpents enough space to find a spot at the right temperature, topped with earth for insulation. 

The den was made in 2015 and Rouleau says it'll take some time before it becomes colonized. 

"We need to let the years pass for snakes to find it, like it or not, use it again and tell their friends, 'Hey, it's nice here, come,'" which they do by following each other's scent. 

In the meantime, if you see one, under a rock or a branch, or in a shrub, feel free to say hello.

with files from Simon Nakonechny