Most people try to avoid encounters with venomous reptiles, but that wasn’t the case for the team of Ontario Nature staff that I accompanied to the Saugeen-Bruce Peninsula last week. These herpetologists and avid naturalists ventured fearlessly across tall-grass meadows, forest clearings and rocky beaches in search of Sistrurus catenatus, commonly known as the Massasauga rattlesnake.
What was the reason for this unusual behaviour? The team is overseeing an important community education campaign to protect the threatened Massasauga rattlesnake from human persecution. Ontario Nature is promoting peaceful coexistence between humans and their rattlesnake neighbours by educating the public and dispelling common misconceptions. The collaborative efforts of dedicated staff and an informed and engaged community will ensure the long-term survival of this species.
Ontario Nature’s staff surveyed a number of sites with suitable habitat and located five rattlers. This may seem like a small number, but if you consider the Massasauga’s exceptional camouflage and its preferred terrain, you realize that rattlesnakes are extremely hard to find. Herpetologist Joe Crowley accurately compared the experience to finding a camouflaged needle in a haystack. The trick is knowing where they like to bask and listening for their distinctive rattle.
Although we went to the Bruce in search of rattlers, we were also on constant lookout for other reptiles and amphibians. We unfortunately came across a large number of dead animals on the roads, victims of vehicular traffic. It was my job as photographer to document these deaths as proof that roads pose a very real threat to Ontario’s herpetofauna. Although morbid to record, road mortality contributions to the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas are helpful to conservation staff. They are used to identify hotspots that would benefit from wildlife crossing signs and infrastructure improvements.
Visiting the Bruce Peninsula with Ontario Nature staff changed the way I view this part of Ontario. I now see it as much more than a picturesque getaway spot. It is a vibrant and fragile ecosystem that must be actively protected if we want it to last.
Kati Bruch is currently studying environmental visual communication at Fleming College and the Royal Ontario Museum, and is spending her summer as an intern at Ontario Nature. Her visual creations inspire people to connect with and protect nature.