The eastern foxsnake (Pantherophis vulpinus) is the third-largest snake in Ontario and can reach a length of up to 1.7 metres, although most individuals are smaller. Its body is yellow to light brown with large, dark brown blotches down the back and two alternating rows of smaller blotches along the sides. This snake has a reddish brown head with dark bars around the eyes and a yellow chin. Its belly, which is also yellow, has alternating brown patches. The scales of this species are lightly keeled (ridged down the centre) and its anal plate is divided.
Other names: eastern fox snake, Pantherophis gloydi, Mintonius gloydi, Elaphe gloydi, Elaphe vulpina gloydi
The eastern foxsnake may be confused with the northern watersnake, milksnake, eastern hog-nosed snake and eastern massasauga. The northern watersnake’s patterning consists of horizontal banding rather than blotches and is very faint on a much darker body. The milksnake has red blotches with a distinct black outline around each blotch. The eastern hog-nosed snake has a distinct upturned snout. The eastern massasauga has a rattle on a blunt tail, a vertical pupil and a triangular head, and adult massasaugas do not grow longer than one metre. 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 many people to mistake it for a rattlesnake and has led to the inappropriate name “hardwood rattler.”
Eastern foxsnakes generally use unforested habitats such as shorelines, prairies, savannahs, rock barrens and wetlands, and are most commonly found in shoreline edge habitats. This species does use forests and forest edge habitat, however, especially along the eastern shore of Georgian Bay. Females require rotten logs, stumps, decaying leaf piles and other features with appropriate conditions for incubating eggs.
In southwestern Ontario, foxsnakes have been able to endure in a heavily modified landscape and will use building foundations, drainage ditches, hedgerows, old wells and so on. In this region, nesting sites often consist of old piles of rotten leaves, wood chips and compost. These snakes avoid agricultural fields.
To view an interactive map of the known ranges of eastern foxsnakes in Ontario.
The eastern foxsnake breeds in April and May. Females can lay up to 29 eggs, although the average clutch size is between 15 and 20. In parts of southern Ontario where much of the natural habitat has been destroyed and good nesting habitat is scarce, several females, including those of other snake species, will lay eggs in the same spot. This can be problematic because eggs are concentrated, which benefits predators, and because cannibalistic hatchlings, such as blue racers, may eat the young of other snake species born nearby. The eggs hatch in one to two months depending on the temperature. Hatchlings are 25 to 30 centimetres long and have the same patterning as their parents but tend to be greyer.
Although less arboreal than other snakes in their genus, foxsnakes can climb trees and have been found up to 10 metres above the ground. They are also excellent swimmers, and eastern foxsnakes in the eastern Georgian Bay population are highly aquatic, regularly swimming many kilometres through open water as they move from island to island. Foxsnakes eat mainly small mammals, as well as birds’ eggs or young birds. If disturbed, these snakes rarely bite but will vibrate their tail.
Foxsnakes overwinter in communal hibernacula (overwintering sites), and over 200 snakes have been observed using a single hibernaculum in the eastern Georgian Bay area. Foxsnakes overwinter underground in bedrock crevices, mammal burrows and, especially in southwestern Ontario, in human-made features such as old wells and foundations.
Threats and Trends
Although the eastern foxsnake’s regional distribution does not seem to have changed over the past century, population abundance (the number of individuals in an area) has declined, especially in southwestern Ontario. Habitat loss has been especially detrimental in southwestern Ontario, as much of the natural habitat has been converted to agricultural fields, which foxsnakes avoid. 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. Sometimes these snakes bask on the warm surface of the road, where they are very susceptible to being killed by vehicles. Persecution also continues to threaten this species. People often kill the foxsnake on sight, mistaking it for a venomous rattlesnake or, due to the reddish head, a copperhead (which does not even occur in Ontario).
Current Status and Protection
The eastern foxsnake’s Georgian Bay population is currently listed as Threatened and the eastern foxsnake’s Carolinan population is currently listed as Endangered under the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007 and Endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act. The species has also been designated as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. These acts offer protection to individuals and their habitat. The habitat of this species is further protected in Ontario by the Provincial Policy Statement under the Planning Act. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the global status of the eastern foxsnake as Near Threatened. The species’ status was last confirmed in 2007. Additional detail about legal protection for species at risk in Ontario is available on our Legal Protection page.
Learn more about reptile and amphibian conservation and what you can do to help these species on our Reptile and Amphibian Stewardship page.