Tank Climbers

Tank Climbers

By: Justine Payne

            Summer is a busy time for many of us. Summer is the time when families are hitting the road, travelling to a new or familiar place to relax and have some fun in the sun! Other animals are on the move too! Like snakes! For the most part, snakes are making their way across the forest floor and through fields. But some snakes are taking a vertical trip! Up a tree that is!

Gray Ratsnakes are one of the few snakes that can climb trees! They have special characteristics that help them to be excellent tree climbers! First is the fact that they have strong muscles. Gray ratsnakes are constrictors so they kill their prey items like small rodents by squeezing them until they cannot take a breath. They then will swallow their now lifeless prey whole. So they have very strong muscles to hunt which helps them to be great tree climbers. They flex and relax their muscles between the grooves of the bark along the trunks of trees to climb vertically! Another characteristic that Gray Ratsnakes have is their flat stomachs. Their flat stomachs give them more surface area for them to cling to trees.

            Murphys Point Provincial Park is fortunate enough to have two new juvenile Gray Ratsnakes that are now call the park Visitor Centre home. One of the juveniles is named Gamma who loves to explore and climb! Gamma is very fond of climbing the sides of the tank! Whether it’s a tree or the ledge in a tank, these Gray Ratsnakes can really climb!

Looking up at the roof of the tank, Gamma is demonstrating how Gray Ratsnakes have excellent tree climbing skills by skillfully climbing upside down between two panels of the tank. Photo Credit: Justine Payne

Looking up at the roof of the tank, Gamma is demonstrating how Gray Ratsnakes have excellent tree climbing skills by skillfully climbing upside down between two panels of the tank.
Photo Credit: Justine Payne

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No Two Snakes are Alike

By: Justine Payne

  Have you ever met someone who is the exact same as you? I haven’t! We all have different personalities with different likes and dislikes. Gray Ratsnakes are like that too!

 Gray Ratsnakes are creatures of habit so they like to hang out in the same places time and time again. This is especially true during the winter months. Gray Ratsnakes hibernate during the winter and so they find a place underground, below the frost line. These places are often in deep rock crevices and they will use the same overwintering site year after year.

 Gray Ratsnakes also have preferences when it comes to their day-to-day lives during the summer. More knowledge has been gained about this through monitoring being done at Murphys Point Provincial Park. The Gray Ratsnake Monitoring Technician has been tracking 6 adult male snakes using radio transmitters. The goal of the monitoring is to find where these snakes spend the winter. But in the meantime the technician has learned what each snake likes to spend its time.

  One Gray Ratsnake that is being tracked, who is referred to as ‘850’ or “Chip”, likes to move around a lot and doesn’t stay in one place for too long. Chip was first found in Ash Hill campground but he didn’t stay very long! He then travelled across Hog Bay to eventually crossing the Narrows of the Big Rideau and spending time along the shore which is indicated in green on the map. Chip has travelled as much as 1.5km in one day throughout his travels!

One of the other snakes that is being tracked is very different from Chip. He is referred to as ‘150’ and he likes to hang out in old farmstead buildings and does not like to travel far from the old farmstead. In fact he mainly stays inside one of the rotten logs of the farmstead.

 Even though these two Gray Ratsnakes are the same species, they are different from each other in how they spend their days.

Chip "850" and his movements

Chip “850” and his movements. 

Released in Ash Hill campground on June 28, over the next twenty-four hours proceeded to move to shoreline near the main beach, then swimming across Hogg Bay to an area somewhere across from the Amphitheater (green area marked 1). Within the next twenty-four hours (3:30 June 29-June 30) 850 proceeded to move along the shoreline, presumably crossing the water at one or several points in order to reach area 2 by the end of the day-long period, travelling approximately 1.5km. From June 30 to July 13 850 remained in area 2, moving from one location to another. July 14 850 swam across the Narrows of the Big Rideau, approximately 750 meters. The next three to four days were spent travelling south, running parallel to the shoreline. Five days were spent on the island in Area 3 before movement south continued. The next eleven days 850 continued travelling south along the shoreline. As of August, 2 850 has been located on Parks Canada’s Tar Island (Area 5)


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Bed Time!

Melanie Fowler

As a general rule, humans enjoy napping, especially the babies and adolescences of our population. The two are no so different. But imagine taking a nap that lasted 6 months! That’s a lot of sleep! There are some critters in our world that indulge in this massive nap. Many of them are reptiles and amphibians who are ectothermic (cold-blooded!) and because they rely on the environment to regulate their own body temperature, they cannot withstand the cold days of winter. The gray ratsnake is no exception! Gray ratsnakes start to disappear into their hibernacula in early October and usually do not return to activity until April. 

Scientists believe that there is an internal rhythm within the snake that knows when it is too cold and again realizes when it is warm enough to wake up and return to spring time activities.

So where do they go to get out of the harsh winter winds? Ratsnakes like their hibernaculum to be deep, safe, and warm. They are usually created out of deep, underground holes, or large rock crevices. Because prime conditions cannot be found just anywhere, snakes will hibernate communally. The average group ranges from 10-60 snakes; but can get up to 100, depending on size. It’s quite a sight to see when they all come out to bask in the spring! 

Juvenile snakes or young hatchlings will hibernate by themselves for the first few years. They usually find a small warm spot somewhere near their nesting site. The young snakes will not join a communal hibernaculum until they are 3 or 4 years old. Once they have found their adult hibernaculum, they are very loyal to it. Over 95% of adult gray ratsnakes will return to the same hibernaculum year after year. If you’ve found a warm, safe spot, why mess with a good thing, right? 

Finding a hibernaculum is very good luck in areas where there is a ratsnake research or conservation project going on (like Murphy’s Point!). Before the snakes emerge, a fence can be put around the hibernaculum with a large trap attached to it. This prevents the ratsnakes from leaving right away and they can be counted, sometimes measure or micro-chipped, and released. This helps keep a tab on the numbers of this species a risk! Identification can also be used to protect the hibernaculum as if they are destroyed, snakes may freeze to death looking for it. No one wants that to happen! 

Hibernation is a key role in the lives of many reptiles, including the gray ratsnake. Just remember next time its below 0 degrees Celsius and you don’t want to leave your bed, the gray ratsnake sympathizes with you!

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Who’s Who?

By Mel Fowler

Gray ratsnakes are fairly distinct and unique in their own way. Yet to an untrained eye, they can be mistaken for another Ontarian snake! Most places where you can find a ratsnake hanging out, you also have a chance of seeing a northern watersnake. There are differences that are important to be aware of and it is quite easy to tell the difference once you have all the facts!

Watersnakes can grow up to 4 and a half feet in length, which is within the average range of grey ratsnakes. They both have black scales, cream coloured patterns on their bellies and coloured shapes on their back. So, it is understandable to get them mixed up. Here are some identification tips:

As a rule, a watersnake will be smaller then a gray ratsnake. Their colouring is also different. While the pattern on gray ratsnakes are created by yellow, orange, or cream coloured skin showing around their scales, the watersnake’s skin is more red in colour. The red skin creates a vertical, almost linear pattern on their backs. The pattern on a gray ratsnake is more diamond shaped splotches. Water snakes also have small ridges running down their scales called keels. Like the keel of a boat. They help the watersnakes swim. Ratsnakes also have keels but not nearly as pronounced so they will often look smooth and shiny, where the water snakes will look more rough and rugged.

These two snakes differ in more ways than physical appearance. They also live in slightly different habitats, which may help you if you are looking to catch a glimpse of a gray ratsnake. Water snakes prefer to live in and around ponds, swamps, rivers, bogs and streams. They are likely to make their nest in the long grass and low-growing bushes and shrubs. When a water snake is chilly and wants to warm up, it will slither out to a dead log in the shallow water and bask there. The ratsnake does swim but not as often and only when needed. Ratsnakes are more of a woodland species and frequently hang out along forest edges. This gives them quick access to sun and to shade and protection. They are able to feed off diets from both habitats. They like to be up in trees to catch some rays or to take a break in the shade of the leaves. They also enjoy old buildings like barns and homesteads as they will make a nest within the rotting logs and feed off the rodents that also live there.

The last and most important difference is their normal behaviour. Watersnakes tend to be more aggressive of the two. If you are encroaching on a watersnakes territory, it is likely to come towards you to scare you off, especially if in the water. On land, they will try to slither back to the water. If flight is not an option, they can strike and bite. Ratsnakes will also bite if they feel particularly threatened but they mostly like to keep to themselves. They are fairly docile and would rather leave you be if you leave them be. Watch out if they coiled or you can hear one vibrating it’s tail against the ground- it wants you to back off! Thankfully, neither of these species is venomous and you should do just fine if you let them go about their day without interruption.

As you can see, there are many differences in gray ratsnakes and watersnakes. Now that you have the basic facts, identification should be a breeze for you. Just remember three key tips: colouring, habitat, and behaviour. Let us know what you see!NWS vs GRS

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Gray Ratsnake Research at Murphys Point Provincial Park – Part Two –

Radio Telemetry and Whatever Else comes our Way

The main focus of the research at Murphys Point this summer will be on our Gray Ratsnake radio telemetry. Over the course of the upcoming few weeks, six sizeable Gray Ratsnakes will be caught and then implanted with radio transmitters. While this surgery is rather invasive, it is being completed by trained veterinarians from the Smith Falls Veterinary Clinic which ensures the snake will be properly and carefully handled. After the snake has recovered from the surgery it will be released back into the park. From this point onward tracking will begin. The transmitters in the snake send out a pulse at a rate that corresponds with the snake’s body temperature, this pulse can be detected by the radio antenna carried by the researcher (myself). Distance and direction between the researcher and the snake can be determined by how loud the pulse (a beep) is.

In this image from a quick film on radio telemetry, I (Brock) am holding the receiver for the radio transmitters. To see the full video clip, come out to the evening program "A Day in a Life." To find out when the program is being presented please contact Murphys Point.

In this image from a quick film on radio telemetry, I (Brock) am holding the receiver for the radio transmitters. To see the full video clip, come out to the evening program “A Day in a Life.” To find out when the program is being presented please contact Murphys Point.

The implanted snakes will be tracked daily and their state and/or actions will be recorded. This constant monitoring of the six snakes will allow us to identify critical habit for the Gray Ratsnake, from egg laying, basking and shedding sites to over wintering sites (hibernacula). Valuable insight will also be gained into what the day to day life of a Gray Ratsnake is like, meanwhile contributing valuable data to our database. The tracking will continue late into the fall and until the snakes go into their hibernacula. In the spring researchers will return to the sites, finding the snakes and surgically removing the transmitters from the snake. The snake is then released and resumes its life.

Due to the rugged and rocky terrain of Murphys Point locating the snakes could prove to be interesting by time as the signal from the transmitters can be reduced by rock valleys, crevasses and so forth. None the less it will be key in locating Gray Ratsnake habitat. This summer guided hikes will be available, where small groups can accompany myself as we track the Gray Ratsnakes. This tour will be available for a set donation, with all funds going towards Gray Ratsnake research. More details are to come on the Friends of Murphys Point Website and in the park Visitor Centre.

Asides from radio telemetry and hibernacula monitoring, Gray Ratsnake demonstrations, prop talks and evening programs will be presented on a handful of occasions, where you can come visit myself and other park staff and learn more about the research being completed here at Murphys Point. Our volunteer carpenter, Suzanne, and myself have also been very busy building new displays for our Visitor Centre, which means that there will be lots to check out here at Murphys Point Provincial park this summer!

If you want to keep up with the ongoing research this summer follow us on twitter @grayratsnake or search Murphys Point Snakes.

Update: As of today (06/24/14) 2 snakes (Steve and Allan) have been implanted with radio transmitters and are freely roaming the park. Both operations went smoothly and both snakes are highly active since their release both travelling well over half a kilometre in just 2 days.

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Welcome and Hibernacula monitoring

Hello and welcome to part one of this blog article on the Gray Ratsnake research that is

Brock releases GRS at hibernaculum

Brock releases GRS at hibernaculum

taking place at Murphys Point Provincial Park during 2014. If you are a nature enthusiast, a frequent camper, a curious passer byer or a procrastinating student quickly looking for information on Gray Ratsnakes and research completed on the subject; hopefully this post will provide you with some quick facts. My name is Brock Ogilvie, and this summer I have been privileged with getting to play a unique role in Murphys Point’s Natural Heritage Education program. This position in particular was created through donations by the Friends of Murphys Point and is titled the “Gray Ratsnake Technician.” This means that over the course of late April through to the summer’s end I will be looking after Gray Ratsnake hibernacula monitoring, Gray Ratsnake tracking through radio telemetry and a few other projects as well.

Hibernacula monitoring takes place in the spring at previously known overwintering locations of the Gray Ratsnake. Every day between April 19th and May 25th myself and a select few other members of park staff would go to two different site for approximately an hour and a half to two hours. Each site would then be thoroughly searched using a transect system (similar to a grid system), with the goal of finding and trapping Gray Ratsnakes as they emerged from the long winter. The snakes are often observed entangled amongst cedar trees which provide excellent shelter as well as exposure to the sun.  Upon capture it was assessed as to whether or not the snake was pit tagged (A small microchip/pit tag is inserted into the Gray Ratsnake in order to better understand population trends as well as to monitor the snakes year to year. The chip is similar to that which you would place in your pet). If the snake did have a pit tag, it was measured, weighed, recorded and released. Snakes yet to be implanted with a pit tag were chipped and added to the park database. In some instances the snakes could not be captured and in these instances the sightings were recorded.

This season seven previously chipped snakes were caught (some on numerous occasions), seven new snakes were caught and ten snakes were simply out of reach, resulting in a total of thirty five sightings during the 36 day period. A grand total of 3032 minutes was spent searching for snakes on both sites, some days in perfect weather other days, not so much. The data here along with a significant amount of other data gathered helps us better understand population trends as well as contributes to our Gray Ratsnake Data base.

If you want to keep up with the ongoing research this summer “follow” us on twitter @grayratsnake or search Murphys Point Snakes.

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What’s On the Menu?

By Monique Aarts

The Gray Ratsnake’s menu is fairly diverse since it’s an opportunistic predator. This means it isn’t specifically made to eat and hunt one or two species, but will eat a large variety of species including mice, rats, shrews, moles, rabbits, birds and bird eggs.

A Red Squirrel is a large – but manageable – meal for a big Gray Ratsnake. Photo: Simon Lunn.

Gray Ratsnakes are constrictors, just like Boa Constrictors! This means that ratsnakes constrict the larger mammals they eat. To constrict, they wrap their bodies around their prey and literally squeeze the life out of them, killing them and then swallowing them whole. A ratsnake will often take prey twice the size of its head – imagine if you tried to swallow a whole watermelon! How does a ratsnake accomplish such a feat? It’s able to unhinge its jaws in two places: top to bottom and side to side.  Bird eggs and nestlings are not constricted but are quickly seized by the snake and swallowed whole.

The larger the ratsnake, the larger the prey it will eat. For example, infant rat snakes will eat smaller reptiles, frogs and reptile eggs whereas their larger parents are more likely to eat mammals up to the size of a Red Squirrel! Larger ratsnakes will even eliminate smaller prey from their diets.

Gray Ratsnakes are extremely valuable to our ecosystem. Since they are such avid tree climbers, Gray Ratsnakes are one of the most important nest predators. They also serve a vital rodent control service to those of us who share our habitat with them! Keeping the Gray Ratsnake from becoming extinct is crucial for the health of our ecosystem.

For more information, visit: http://mysite.science.uottawa.ca/gblouin/publications/017_2003_brs_diet.pdf

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Back Up, Man!

By Cody Noonan

A ratsnake secretes foul-smelling musk from its vent. Photo: Alida Lemieux.

It has been said time and time again that Gray Ratsnakes pose no danger to humans. But just like anything else, the ratsnake will protect itself from perceived threats, and it has some very unique and sneaky ways of doing so.

When you encounter a Gray Ratsnake in the wild, it will most likely do its best to get away from you. In the event that it becomes cornered, it has a few tricks up its sleeve.  The first defence is its posture. The snake may coil up and ‘stand’ on the back part of its body, making it appear larger and more frightening. From this
position it does something that a lot of animals do: mimic something more dangerous and deadly. The ratsnake will vibrate its tail very quickly on dry grass or leaves, making a noise similar to the rattle of a rattlesnake. Whether or not it’s consciously mimicking a rattlesnake doesn’t matter.  The fact that many people, and likely many other animals, have come to associate that sound with danger seems to work for the ratsnake. How does that saying go, “even if you can’t, pretend you can”? Something like that, anyway! But remember the Gray Ratsnake is not venomous, so don’t let the rattle noise fool you like it may fool predators.

Now if these defences don’t prove to be very effective, a provoked snake may turn to other method of protection: musking. Snake musk is a gooey, cream-coloured substance that the snake may ooze out of its vent (cloaca, or rear-end), and like mostthings that come out of an animal’s rear-end, it stinks! The liquid produces a stench that fills the air, and warns any predator, “I’m telling you, I taste as bad as I smell, so you may want to stay back!” Gabriel Blouin-Demers conducted a
study about sexual dimorphism (the differences between males and females of a species) in Gray Ratsnakes. After his research was done, he concluded that the only real difference between the genders was their reliance on musk as a defence. He concluded that gravid (pregnant) female snakes have a musk that is far more pungent smelling than males’, and that these females use musk as a defence more often than males do. It makes complete sense: I’m sure it’s probably hard for a pregnant woman of any species to stand up on her behind and vibrate her bottom on the grass!

Even though they aren’t dangerous, Gray Ratsnakes are still wild animals and just like any other creature they’re most likely going to try to protect themselves. Imagine if you picked up a cute and cuddly wild Cottontail Rabbit: just see if it doesn’t try to bite or scratch you (kids, don’t try this at home)!  Either way ratsnakes are creatures that have some great ways of keeping predators and humans at bay, so be prepared next time you take a closer look at one of these animals.  If it starts to get a little agitated, you may just want to take a few steps back and admire it from a distance.  Otherwise, you may be in for one smelly surprise!

To learn more about sexual dimorphism in Gray Ratsnakes visit http://mysite.science.uottawa.ca/gblouin/publications/003_2000_brs_nws_musk.pdf

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The Girl Every Guy is After

By Megan Clark

Lady Gray Ratsnakes are never short of attention from their male counterparts. A polyandrous species, females tend to mate with multiple males. A study published in 2005 found that out of 34 clutches of ratsnake eggs studied, a whopping 88% of them were sired by multiple snakes, some with three fathers to one clutch! Baby snakes hatch amongst step-brothers and step-sisters, oblivious to the
mating rituals that brought them into this world.

In April or May the Gray Ratsnake emerges from its over-wintering site, or hibernaculum, and the population disperses. The fun begins a month later when mating season begins. Unlike some snakes who take part in a “mating ball,” where 50 snakes or more may gather to mate all at once, the Gray Ratsnake female mates with one male at a time. Macho males put on the moves through a ritual “combat dance” and tail-tangling with other males. The winner, of course, gets the girl. But if she’s already chosen the biggest and best male, why mate again? It seems the female ratsnake has her reasons…

Ratsnake populations are not often especially dense, and so although populations from different hibernacula overlap, a female still runs the risk of mating with a male from her own hibernaculum. These males are likely closely related to her. For the sake of genetic diversity it is better for her to mate with a distantly related male. Mating with many makes this more likely. Multiple mating is also good insurance against infertile males or sperm that are incompatible with her eggs. Indeed her strategy does work: more eggs successfully hatch when multiple males have fertilized a clutch.

To read more about this study, visit http://mysite.science.uottawa.ca/gblouin/publications.html#Y2005
and http://mysite.science.uottawa.ca/gblouin/publications/022_2005_brs_sex_selection.pdf

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Snake Senses

By Hayley Murray

A snake’s senses are crucial for its survival in the wild. Snakes use their tongues for tasting, touching and smelling. They have very sensitive jaw muscles and are able to detect vibrations from their surroundings: an interesting alternative to external ears! Snakes use their eyes to see but sight is certainly not their best sense.

Gray Ratsnakes, just like other snakes don’t use their noses to pick up scents but instead use something called the Jacobson’s organ. The Jacobson’s organ is also known as the vomeronasal organ. It is located on the roof of the snake’s mouth. As the snake’s tongue rapidly flicks out of its mouth, it captures scent particles from the air. The snake then brings its tongue back into its mouth where it comes into contact with the Jacobson’s organ. The Jacobson’s organ’s sensory cells send chemical information from the scent particles to the brain. This helps the ratsnake to tell the difference between (and respond accordingly to) a potential rodent dinner or a threatening coyote.

Most people think that snakes don’t have ears, but that is not the case. They do have ears, just not external “ear flaps” (pinnae). A snake’s inner ear picks up vibrations from the jaw. How does this work? For example, vibrations from the step of an approaching human are picked up by the quadrate bone (where the lower jaw and the skull join), and are then transferred to the middle ear bone and finally the inner ear. This then allows the snake to “hear” you coming even before you can see it.

Snakes’ senses are what keep them alert and ready at all times. We can all do our part to help these snakes out by letting them go on their way when we see them. These snakes are harmless to humans so there is no reason to be scared of them.

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