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Snakes in the Codroy Valley

his is the smaller of two snakes spotted by Harrison Bragg on October 10, 2023. – Courtesy of © Harrison Bragg

By Jaymie White Local Journalism Initiative Reporter CODROY VALLEY — Unlike the migratory woodland caribou, the northern long-eared bat, or the Arctic hare, snakes have never been native to Newfoundland and Labrador. They are common in other Atlantic provinces, but have never been a prevalent species found here. Over the last 13 years, common garter snakes have been found breeding in Western Newfoundland, meaning they were somehow introduced into the province’s ecosystem. The first confirmed report of a snake in Newfoundland was a common garter snake found in the St. David’s area in 2010. In 2015, a few more garter snakes were observed on the east coast near St. John’s. Newfoundland is about as far north as most reptiles can go and survive, but common garter snakes are a tougher breed, sometimes found as far north as the southern portion of the Northwest Territories. According to the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture (FFA), even though these snakes aren’t native to the province, they pose no current risks. “A self-sustaining population of garter snakes has been known in the Bay St. George South area since at least 2010. The Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture receives regular reports about common garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) and continues to track public sightings. Garter snakes do not generally pose a risk to people or pets. “Most reports of garter snakes have been from the Robinsons, St. David’s and Maidstone areas in southwestern Newfoundland. There are possible populations in Trout River, Middle Arm and the Deer Lake areas. There have also been occasional sightings from other areas including Cochrane Pond, Mount Pearl, Southlands, Holyrood, Virgin Arm, and Middle Arm. “Accidental imports of snakes in hay bales from outside the province is believed to be the most likely source of introductions, as well as people bringing snakes into the province as pets and intentionally releasing them. “The department has received reports of other snakes being found, but these are believed to be local pet escapes and there are no known persistent wild populations. Under the Wild Life Act it is prohibited to import a wild animal into the province without prior written permission from the department. It is also prohibited to release any animal into natural cover, or to capture and/or re-locate an animal without written authorization. “The department is collaborating with Laurentian University and Mount Allison University on a multi-year research project that seeks to better understand the impacts that non-native snakes are having on native species and ecosystems, as well as their distribution, population sizes, origins, and invasion pathways on the Island of Newfoundland. The current research project is bringing a Ph.D. student across the island to closely investigate these reports and engage the public in the issue.” While garter snakes are normally on the smaller side, between only 18 and 26 inches long, they have been known to grow to a length of 42 inches, and this size is more in keeping with the size of the snake that Harrison Bragg stumbled upon in Loch Leven on Tuesday, Oct. 10. The snake was on the road, seemingly drawn to the warmth of the asphalt. If Bragg is correct in his assumption, the species he managed to photograph is the Maritime garter snake, which has a wide variety of colours. However, it is typically brown, dark green or black with three yellow stripes: one down the back (dorsal stripe) and one on each side (lateral stripes). A large number of these snakes have white, brown or black checkered or speckled patterning along the back. The Maritime garter snake has a yellowish tint to their chin, upper jaw and belly and the snakes can grow to just under a metre in length. Normally this snake is found in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, and can be found in a wide variety of habitats including forests, wetlands, shrublands, shorelines, fields and rocky areas. This species normally breeds in the spring, soon after coming out of hibernation, and the females give birth up to 40 live young in the month of August. These snakes eat a wide variety of food, including frogs, toads, salamanders, earthworms and mice, and they can live for more than 20 years. “I was on my way just going through that community, and the first one I seen, I thought it was a bungee cord. So when I passed it, I looked down and it was a snake. So I hit the brakes and backed up a little tiny bit and that went off the road like a bullet,” said Bragg. “Man, oh man. I didn’t believe they could move so fast.” The sheer size of the snake is something Bragg hasn’t seen before. “I’ve never even seen a snake since I was a youngster. I know the boys used to bring them back from Nova Scotia, little garter snakes, but not this size here,” said Bragg. “I’d say that snake was probably about two and a half feet. The first one took off, so I didn’t get a chance to take a picture. So I put the truck in gear, drove about 100 feet and there was another one on the road and that was in the centre of the road, so I backed up and that’s the one I got pictures of. He’s the smaller of the two.” Bragg has a friend who lives in the community of Loch Leven, Elvis Gillam, and he contacted him to see if he had ever witnessed snakes of this size in his community. “I have seen lots of them, for over four years now, lots of smaller ones but a few big ones,” said Gillam. “A guy digging in a pit in St. David’s last week disturbed a nest with over 50 in it, and a girl from MUNL (Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador) was doing a study on them here this past summer”. Bragg thinks it’s more likely that snakes are coming here in hay bales as opposed to people bringing them in and then letting him go, but it’s something he thinks we may never know for sure. The FFA asks people to report encounters with any snakes. “Where available, include photos and any details such as date, location, and behaviour, or GPS coordinates if available, so conservation officers can investigate.”

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