There are no native species of kingsnakes found in Canada. However, kingsnakes have been introduced to some parts of southern Canada through the pet trade and accidental or intentional releases. Kingsnakes are colubrid snakes that get their common name from their habit of preying upon other snakes, including venomous species like rattlesnakes. They are medium to large constrictors that can make appealing pets due to their docile nature, but they can become invasive and disrupt local ecosystems if released. This article will examine whether kingsnakes have established breeding populations in Canada, which species have been introduced, where introductions have occurred, impacts on native wildlife, and legal status across different Canadian jurisdictions.
– There are no native kingsnake species in Canada. Some non-native kingsnakes have been introduced to southern parts of British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritime provinces through accidental or intentional release of pets.
– The most commonly introduced kingsnake species are the California kingsnake and Eastern kingsnake. Other species like Speckled kingsnakes, Black kingsnakes and Florida kingsnakes have been found in Canada but less frequently.
– Kingsnakes have only established breeding populations in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland but isolated individuals have been recorded across southern Canada.
– Kingsnakes prey on small mammals, birds, eggs, and other reptiles, including venomous snakes. They have the potential to disrupt local ecosystems and threaten some at-risk native species.
– Most jurisdictions prohibit introducing non-native species and require permits to keep non-native snakes like kingsnakes as pets. Releasing pet snakes is illegal.
Kingsnake Species Introduced to Canada
The kingsnake species that have been recorded in Canada either as captured individuals or breeding populations include:
The California kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula californiae) is the most commonly introduced kingsnake species in Canada. Native to the southwestern United States and Mexico, this colubrid has been found in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. This species comes in a wide variety of color patterns. They are effective predators of rodents, lizards, snakes (including rattlesnakes), and birds and their eggs.
The Eastern kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula getula) has also been widely introduced outside its native range in the southeastern United States. Isolated individuals have been recorded in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, likely originating from the pet trade. This is one of the largest subspecies, capable of reaching up to 6 feet in length. Their background color is typically black or dark brown with a chain-like series of yellow or white markings along the length of the body.
The Speckled kingsnake (Lampropeltis holbrooki) is native to the southeastern United States. Despite the small size of this species (typically 2 to 3 feet in length), individual snakes have been found as far north as southern Ontario, likely released pets. This species has pale brown or gray background coloration with darker brown or black speckles.
The Black kingsnake (Lampropeltis nigra) has very limited recorded introductions in Canada. Small populations were thought to exist in southern Ontario in the 1990s, possibly originating from released pets. This primarily black colored species with faint white speckling is native to the southeastern United States.
The Florida kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula floridana) is the subspecies found in southern Florida. Single individuals have been recorded in Ontario and Quebec after likely being released or having escaped from captivity. This small to medium subspecies has a light gray or tan background color with darker chain-like markings.
Where Have Kingsnakes Been Introduced in Canada?
Most kingsnake observations and captures have occurred in the southern regions of Canada with milder climates. Sightings are generally associated with areas of high human population where snakes may have escaped or been released from captivity.
British Columbia is the only area where introduced kingsnakes are known to have established self-sustaining breeding populations in Canada. California kingsnakes occur mainly in the Lower Mainland around Vancouver where the climate is the warmest. Populations likely originated from pet snakes that were intentionally released or escaped into the wild. Kingsnakes have also been recorded on Vancouver Island and other parts of southwestern British Columbia.
Various kingsnake species have been observed in southern Ontario, with clusters of records near highly populated areas like Toronto and throughout the Niagara region. The species recorded include California kingsnake, Eastern kingsnake, Speckled kingsnake, and Black kingsnake. However, persistent breeding populations are not thought to exist in Ontario due to the less suitable cold climate.
Isolated kingsnake sightings have occurred near Montreal and the Ontario border along the St. Lawrence River Valley where climate conditions are milder. Both California kingsnakes and Florida kingsnakes have been recorded in Quebec, likely originating as escaped or released pets.
New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island have occasional recorded observations of stray California kingsnakes and Eastern kingsnakes, particularly in coastal areas with milder climates. However, there are no indications of established breeding populations.
Impacts on Native Canadian Wildlife
The ecological impacts of introduced kingsnakes populations are not well studied in Canada. However, research in other areas suggests several potential risks:
Predation of Native Species
Kingsnakes eat a varied diet of small mammals, birds, eggs, amphibians, lizards, and other snakes – even venomous species. Kingsnakes have the potential to prey on native Canadian species like endangered spotted turtles, western painted turtles, northern map turtles, and western skinks. Declining populations of the threatened Sharp-tailed snake in British Columbia may also be impacted.
Competition with Similar Species
Kingsnakes occupy an ecological niche similar to native Canadian snakes like garter snakes and rat snakes. Introduced kingsnakes may compete for food and habitat resources, as has been documented in other regions where snake species co-occur.
Introduction of Parasites/Disease
Introduced species can carry novel parasites or diseases that may spread to native wildlife with devastating effects, as has occurred with the fungus that causes snake fungal disease in North America. Monitoring the health of introduced kingsnakes is important to reduce risk.
Disruption of Food Webs
As predators of both rodents and other snakes, kingsnakes have the potential to disrupt delicate ecological balances in food webs when introduced outside their native ranges. The overall ecosystem impacts are challenging to predict.
Laws and Regulations on Kingsnakes in Canada
Laws regarding non-native species like kingsnakes fall under both federal and provincial/territorial jurisdiction in Canada. Here are some of the key regulations:
– Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act – Prohibits importing species considered harmful to Canadian ecosystems without a permit. Kingsnakes are not specifically listed but are subject to this regulation.
– Wildlife Transport Regime – Requires transport permits for moving reptiles between provinces.
– British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, PEI, Newfoundland, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut prohibit introducing non-native species and require permits to keep snakes like kingsnakes as pets.
– British Columbia designates kingsnakes as controlled alien species under its Wildlife Act. Their release into the wild is illegal.
– Some jurisdictions prohibit possession of kingsnakes entirely. Municipal bylaws may also apply.
Enforcing laws on introduced reptiles like kingsnakes can be difficult. Snakes are released surreptitiously and populations establish before officials are aware. Monitoring the pet trade and educating owners against releasing exotic pets is key for prevention.
Kingsnake Sightings and Control Programs in Canada
There are a few initiatives focused on tracking and managing introduced kingsnakes populations:
British Columbia Reptile Identification Program
This educational program by the BC Ministry of Environment instructs residents how to identify native and invasive reptiles and report sightings. Kingsnake sightings can be reported through the Invasive Species Council of BC. These reports contribute to monitoring introduced snakes.
Canadian Herpetological Society
This nonprofit group collects data on reptile distribution in Canada. Members of the public can submit kingsnake observations to help map introduced populations.
Invasive Species Centre (Ontario)
This Ontario-based organization has developed outreach materials to raise awareness about invasive kingsnakes and encourage reporting of sightings by the public.
Kingsnake Detectors (Ontario)
This volunteer group removes and re-homes illegally released exotic snakes from the Toronto region, including kingsnakes. They also lobby for stronger regulation of exotic pets.
Control and Eradication Attempts
Beyond monitoring and reporting, there have been limited efforts specifically focused on removing established kingsnake populations in Canada. Their secretive habits make snakes difficult to detect and trap. Surgical sterilization shows some promise for humane control.
Likelihood Kingsnakes Will Spread in Canada
The likelihood that introduced kingsnake species will establish larger populations and spread to new areas in Canada depends on several factors:
The climate north of the US border generally limits kingsnakes. Southern Ontario, southern Quebec, south coastal BC, and the Maritime provinces represent the northern limits of suitable habitat based on current warming trends. Further expansion would require even warmer temperatures.
Access to adequate prey like small rodents and reptiles enables kingsnake populations to be self-sustaining. Regions with an abundance of snakes, lizards, rodents, and songbird eggs can better support kingsnakes.
Interbreeding between escaped pet snakes of multiple kingsnake species could produce hybrids adapted to colder climates. This phenomenon has been observed in Burmese pythons establishing in Florida.
Continued intentional and accidental release of pet kingsnakes may allow populations to persist even in climates not wholly suitable. Tighter regulation of exotic snake ownership could help reduce this threat.
While no kingsnakes are native to Canada, individual snakes transported from the pet trade have been found across southern regions of British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime provinces. So far, the only known breeding population is in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. The potential ecological impacts of kingsnakes highlight the importance of responsible pet ownership and reporting sightings of released exotic species. While climate is likely to constrain their range, ongoing monitoring and management is prudent to prevent further spread in Canada.