Tips for Finding Ontario's Reptiles and Amphibians
Before you begin searching for reptiles and amphibians, please read the atlas policy and the guidelines for reptile and amphibian surveys. These documents will provide you with more information about the project, as well as some great tips to make your search much easier!
1. Think like an ectotherm!
Remember, reptiles and amphibians are ectothermic, meaning that their body temperature is determined by their environment. In order to keep their body in the right temperature range (thermoregulation), they have to move to a warmer area to warm up or a cooler area to cool down. Additionally, most amphibians will dry out if they spend too much time in dry, hot environments. So their movements are influenced by both temperature and moisture. Therefore, much of the behaviour of reptiles and amphibians is directly related to the weather. A few simple rules will allow you to predict what reptiles and amphibians will be doing based on the weather, and that will tell you where to find them!
- Turtles and some snakes will bask in the sun when they are trying to warm up. The best time to find basking reptiles is on cool sunny mornings or sunny days with a temperature that does not exceed 20-25 °C. Bear in mind that snakes can also bask out of sight by hiding under thin pieces of wood, metal and rocks that absorb the sun's heat.
- Reptiles are most active between the temperatures of 15-30 °C.
- When it is cooler than 10-15°C and the sun is not out, reptiles will generally remain hidden. Turtles go under water or in aquatic vegetation and snakes find cover, in cracks and mammal burrows.
- Most reptiles will seek cool shelter either underground or underwater when the daily temperature exceeds 30 °C. Some species even go into aestivation (dormancy induced by heat, rather than by cold as in the case of hibernation) during the hot weeks from mid July to mid August.
When in water, frogs can generally be observed under a wider range of temperatures than reptiles, and some species of frogs are active in the early spring before the ice has fully melted.
Amphibian movement tends to occur when it is raining as this prevents them from drying out during long overland movements. In fact, many amphibian species go on mass migrations on warm, rainy nights and thousands of frogs or salamanders can be observed moving across the landscape.
Salamanders come out of hiding to forage when it rains. Otherwise, they are underground or under cover on the forest floor (logs, rocks, etc) and rarely seen.
On hot, dry days the aquatic frogs (including green, mink and bullfrogs) will not be far from the water. The more terrestrial frogs (such as tree frog, spring peepers, leopard frog and wood frog) will generally be found avoiding the heat in the cool shade of the forest understory.
2. A place to call home
Although reptiles and amphibians can be found in a diversity of habitats, there are certain places where you will be more likely to find them in high numbers, or where you will find a greater diversity of species. Some of these hot spots include:
- Snakes are commonly found under various cover objects, including rocks, boards and scrap metal. These objects warm up quickly in the sun (provided they are not too thick) and allow the snakes to "bask" underneath them without being exposed to predators. It is not uncommon to find 10 or more snakes under a single sheet of plywood in a good habitat.
- Unless it is raining, salamanders rarely venture from beneath their logs, rocks or other cover on the forest floor. As such, looking under these cover objects in the forest is the best way to find salamanders (and even toads).
- When looking under cover objects, ensure you replace them properly and do not crush anything that may be living there! When you lift the object you will see an outline of where it was. It is very important that you place the object exactly back on the outline, especially for salamanders whose habitat could be destroyed if too much air passes under the object and the humidity falls.
Wetlands and shorelines
- Shorelines and wetlands (such as fens, bogs, swamps, meadows and marshes) are home to a high diversity of reptiles and amphibians.
- Newts, watersnakes, ribbonsnakes, many species of frogs and several turtle species can all be found in these shallow water areas.
- Most frogs and salamanders congregate in wetlands during their breeding season (usually spring and early summer) and can be found easily during these times.
- Areas where one type of habitat meets another provide better opportunities for thermoregulation. For example, moving between a cool forest and a sunny meadow allows a snake to better control its temperature than if it stayed just in the sunny meadow.
- Forests next to any open habitats (fields, rock barrens, meadows, etc) are a favourite edge habitat of many reptiles.
Watch the road!
Reptiles and amphibians are regularly found on roads, and, consequently, are often run over. Watching for reptiles and amphibians on the road is a great way to get a better idea of what species are present in an area. It also provides you with the opportunity to contribute to the conservation of local populations. If you find animals on the road, help them across (if it is safe to do so) and help reduce road mortality. If you help a reptile or amphibian cross the road, always move it in the direction it was going, regardless of which side of the road looks like better habitat. If you move it back to the side it came from, the animal will try to cross the road again. Reptiles and amphibians are more likely to be encountered on the road in the following situations:
- Turtles: During nesting season from late May to late June. The gravel used in gravel roads or the shoulders of paved roads provide excellent nesting materials for gravid turtles, which will often be attracted to the roads to lay their eggs. This is a huge problem, since nesting turtles may spend hours on the road, putting them at high risk of road mortality.
- Snakes: On sunny days, either because they are basking on the warm pavement, or because they are more active on those days and therefore more likely to come across a road.
- Amphibians: When it is raining. Several species undergo mass migrations on rainy nights, and thousands of frogs or salamanders can be observed moving across a single road.