Discover the 5 Smallest Reptiles Living in Canada Today

Five-lined Skink Lizard on the sand.
James DeBoer/Shutterstock.com

Written by Arlene Mckanic

Published: September 18, 2023

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Reptiles range in size from the minuscule Brookesia nana chameleon at 0.87 inches long to Lolong, the crocodile, which was 22 feet long and still wasn’t the largest crocodile that ever lived. Canada can’t boast a reptile even remotely that big. It does have its share of smaller ones, though nothing as tiny as B. nana. Here are five of the smallest reptiles in Canada.

1. Smallest Reptiles in Canada: The Stinkpot

the stinkpot turtle or common musk turtle ( Sternotherus odoratus ) one of smallest turtle on earth finger comparison

The stinkpot is one of the smallest reptiles in Canada and one of the smallest turtles on earth.

This little turtle, scientific name Sternotherus odoratus, weighs about 3.5 ounces and ranges from 2 to 5.5 inches in length, with an average length of a little over 4 inches. It makes up for its small size with its smell, which gives it the common name of stinkpot. Beneath its shell, the stinkpot has four glands that produce phenylalkanoic acid, which has a powerful and nasty odor. Biologists believe the acid, which is orange, repels predators and attracts mates. The stinkpot is found in southern Ontario.

Characteristics

The top of the stinkpot’s shell is brown with black spots or streaks, while the bottom is yellow. The turtle has gray skin with yellow stripes and spots on the head, legs, and the lower part of its neck. You can see white or yellowish skin between the seams on the bottom of its shell or plastron. The plastron also has a hinge that doesn’t work.

You can tell the stinkpot from its cousins in the Sternotherus genus because both eyes have a yellow streak above and below it. Stinkpots also have long, pointed noses and barbels on their chin, though these may be hard to see. The heads and tails of male stinkpots are larger than those of females, and their tails are wide at the bottom and taper at the end.

The stinkpot spends most of its time in any body of fresh water where there are enough aquatic plants to sustain it. They prefer water that’s no deeper than about 6.5 feet, and you can often find them on the bottom of the pond, lake, or stream searching for a mate or something to eat. On the other hand, stinkpots have been found basking in trees as high as 6 feet above the water. From there, they simply drop into the water.

How the Stinkpot Reproduces

Stinkpot males try to mate with multiple females, and females try to mate with multiple males. As a result a clutch of eggs may have different fathers. A female stinkpot can also store sperm over the winter and then fertilize her eggs in the spring. She’ll lay one to six eggs at a time and can lay one to four clutches during the breeding season. She digs a burrow to hold her eggs, and they’ll incubate anywhere between a little over two months to a little less than three months. Sometimes the burrows are communal.

Like many reptiles, stinkpot sex is determined by the temperature at which the eggs incubate. If the temperature is higher than 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit, the hatchlings will almost all be female. Under 77 degrees F, the hatchlings will be nearly all male.

Stinkpot hatchlings are only 0.98 inches long and weigh between 0.056 to 0.11 ounces, making them North America’s tiniest turtles. Most leave their nest in the summer or fall, but some stay throughout the winter. Males are ready to mate when they are five to six years old, and females are ready when they’re around eight or nine years old. Stinkpots usually live between 15 and 19 years, but one captive stinkpot was nearly 55 when it passed away. The stinkpot’s conservation status is least concern.

2. Smallest Reptiles in Canada: Greater Short-horned Lizard

Greater Mountain Short-horned Lizard, Phyrnosoma hernandesi, sitting in the sun.

The Greater Short-horned Lizard basks on a rock.

Found only in the western part of North America, this little reptile is one of the few lizards native to Canada. It’s found in southern British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan in prairies, forests, and other places where the soil is stony or sandy. It’s able to live as far north as Canada because it can stand the cold better than other kinds of lizards. Because of this, it has the widest distribution and lives in more types of habitats than any other lizard on the continent. It has even been found in the mountains at elevations as high as 11,300 feet.

Characteristics

The greater short-horned lizard, Phrynosoma hernandesi grows to between 2 and 5 inches long and weighs around 0.35 of an ounce. Females are bigger than males. The lizard has a flat body covered with hard, hornlike scales, with the largest ones forming a crown around its head. There is also a fringe of horny scales along its body and short tail, though the scales on the belly are smooth. Its legs are short and splayed out. The lizard’s body can be reddish brown, yellow, or gray, and it has two rows of spots down its back. The coloration and patterns help to camouflage the reptile. These colors intensify when the lizard is agitated. Not only do its colors grow brighter, but the lizard can famously squirt blood out of its eyeballs, usually at dogs, foxes, or coyotes.

The lizard, erroneously called the horny toad, is active during the day and eats insects, mostly ants. It sits by an anthill and waits for the ants to crawl within range before it snaps them up with its sticky tongue. The lizard moves from one anthill to the other when it’s active. This gives the colony time to repopulate. In turn, the greater short-horned lizard is preyed upon by wild and domestic dogs, birds of prey, and snakes. Besides squirting blood at their attackers, the lizards swell up, flatten out, lunge with their mouths open, and can even inflict some damage with their horns.

How They Reproduce

P. hernandesi mates in the spring, and the female gives birth to live young in the late summer. Most females give birth to between 6 and 18 babies, but some bear as many as 48. The babies are about 0.94 inches long, weigh about 0.035 of an ounce, and are hornless. It takes a day before they learn how to crawl. Males are ready to mate when they’re about a year old, and females when they’re about two. Even though it’s affected by habitat disruption and climate change, the horned lizard’s conservation status is least concern.

3. Smallest Reptiles in Canada: Western Skink

A western skink found in the Laguna Mountains of Southern California.

A young western skink has a vivid blue tail.

This lizard, whose scientific name is Plestiodon skiltonianus, is found in southern British Columbia. Also called Skilton’s skink, it grows to between 3.94 to 8.27 inches, including its tail. Its back bears a wide brown stripe with a black border and a wide, off-white side stripe that starts at the lizard’s snout and runs down to the tail. Beneath it is a wide black stripe bordered by another white stripe running to the tail. The tails of young skinks are vivid blue and turn gray when the lizard matures. The colors of young skinks are more vibrant than the colors of older lizards. During the mating season, areas of orange or red appear on the male skink’s body, usually on the head and beneath the tail. Overall, the skink’s body has an unusually smooth, shiny appearance.

Behavior

The skink is shy and secretive. It is active during the day, and if you want to find it, you should look under leaf litter or in the bark. The cold-blooded lizard still spends at least some of the day basking in the sun. It eats small invertebrates, including earthworms, insects, and spiders, and now and then, it will eat members of its species. It prefers moist places such as grasslands.

As a small reptile, the western skink has a host of predators, including birds, mammals, and other reptiles such as snakes. It can detach its tail, which wriggles in the grip of a predator while the lizard escapes. Predators may even mistake the juvenile’s bright blue tail for a blue snake or a blue worm. The tail can grow back, but it’s shorter than the original tail and might be misshapen. The skink also bites if it doesn’t like being handled.

Mature skinks start to slow down in the autumn, and they hibernate in communal dens during the winter. Young skinks are active for a few more weeks before they need to find shelter from the cold weather.

Skink Reproduction

The western skink mates in spring after it comes out of hibernation. Females lay two to six eggs that hatch in midsummer. Older females lay more eggs than younger ones. Female skinks are a bit unusual for reptiles in that they take care of their young. First, she’ll dig a nest chamber under a log or a flat rock and guard the nest. She’ll even bask in the sun for a while, return to the nest, and transfer some of the heat to her eggs.

Skinks are ready to breed when they’re around three years old, and they live for about nine years. They’re conservation status is least concern.

4. Smallest Reptiles in Canada: Painted Turtle

Western Painted Turtles Lined Up on a Log in the Water

Painted turtles are reptiles that love to bask in the sun. They even love to bask together.

This 5- to 10-inch-long turtle is the only species in its genus, which is Chrysemys. C. picta and its subspecies are found from southern British Columbia to Nova Scotia. It’s a very common turtle whose conservation status is least concern.

Characteristics

This turtle has a smooth and somewhat flat carapace that has a greenish-brown or black ground color with overlapping plates and red or yellow markings around the rim. The bottom of the shell can be brightly colored in shades of yellow or red, depending on the subspecies. The turtle’s skin is olive green to black and striped with yellow or red. Because it spends much time in the water, the painted turtle’s feet are webbed. The turtle’s face is always striped with yellow, and it bears a yellow line and spots behind each eye.

Females are larger than males. Both grow quickly when they’re young and basically never stop growing, though the rate is much reduced when they’re older. The smallest of the subspecies is C.p. picta, the eastern painted turtle, which grows between 5 and 7 inches long and is found in the maritime provinces. The largest is the 10-inch western-painted turtle, C.p. bellii, which is found in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.

All subspecies of the painted turtle need bodies of shallow fresh water with gentle currents and muddy bottoms. They also need sufficient aquatic plants and places to haul out. The midland painted turtle, C. p. marginata, can also tolerate a surprising amount of pollution in the water where it lives.

Behavior

Painted turtles are diurnal. They love to bask, and they love to bask in groups. Often, they’ll climb on top of each other. Basking not only warms them up but rids them of parasites. They slip into the water with surprising speed when they sense danger. They eat plants and small aquatic animals and sometimes take carrion. Turtles are toothless, but they have horny plates in their jaws that let them grab their food. They eat while they’re in the water. At night, they head to the bottom of the pond, lake, or stream, lie on an underwater log or rock, and sleep.

These turtles hibernate during the winter; in Canada, they might hibernate from October to March. The body of water might even freeze over. The turtles dig into the mud, and their body temperature can drop as low as 43 degrees Fahrenheit. During this time, the turtle doesn’t breathe. It actually holds its breath during the long months of hibernation in Canada. However, on warm days, it might come out to bask.

The painted turtle has an amazing number of predators, including humans, especially when they’re newly hatched or still in the egg. Other predators include crows, waterfowl, rodents, foxes, raccoons, water bugs, and snakes. Adults try to defend themselves by biting, scratching, kicking, or voiding their bladders. They can also flip themselves right side up if they land on their backs.

How Painted Turtles Reproduce

Painted turtles mate when the water temperature is between 50 and 77 degrees F, which is usually in the spring or the fall. The turtles first need to produce gametes. This takes a long time, especially for females. After they mate, the female can store the male’s sperm for as long as three years, and one clutch of eggs can have different fathers. Egg laying finally happens from May to the middle of July.

The female digs a nest in soft soil in places where the eggs can get lots of sun and are fairly close to the water. The eggs are oval and have soft shells. She digs with her back feet, much like sea turtles do. Nests of different females may be very close together, or they may be communal. Nest building and egg laying can take hours; sometimes, the female stays overnight, too exhausted to return to her pond.

A female can produce as many as five clutches a year, but she usually produces two. Older and larger females have more clutches and lay more eggs. Other females take a year or two off from egg laying.

Small, Winter Hardy Reptile

The eggs hatch after 72 to 80 days. The baby turtle breaks out using an egg tooth and may stay in the nest to overwinter. The fact that young turtles can survive even Canadian winters has allowed the painted turtle to have such a wide range.

If they leave the nest soon after hatching, the baby turtles depend on their egg yolk for food for the first week. Then, they start to forage. They grow quickly during their first year, but their growth slows down when they reach breeding age. Painted turtles who live in Canada mature later than their southern counterparts. Males mature between seven and nine years old, and females do not mature until they’re between 11 and 16. The painted turtle can live as long as 40 years, but most wild turtles don’t make it to that age.

5. Smallest Reptiles in Canada: DeKay’s Brown Snake

a dekay's brown snake on green moss, they are non venomous, scientific name Storeria dekayi

This small snake found in Canada is nonvenomous.

Also called the brown snake, you’ll find this small reptile in the southern parts of Quebec and Ontario. Adults usually grow less than 12 inches and rarely exceed 15. This snake, Storeria dekayi, is a member of the colubrid family and is nonvenomous. DeKay’s brown snake is a reptile that loves to live in cities and other places of human habitation. When they’re found in the wild, it’s in wetlands and forests.

Characteristics

This snake is brownish gray with a light stripe down its back that’s edged on both sides with black spots. Its belly is pale, and the scales on its back are notably keeled. It has no scales between its eyes and its nostrils. It has a large, round shape that is often seen on nonvenomous snakes and a robust body. Males and females look alike, but the male has a longer tail. A snake’s tail begins where its ribs end. Young brown snakes are only about 3.5 inches long, are black or charcoal gray, and have a white ring around the neck.

Behavior

DeKay’s brown snake is fascinating because it is nocturnal, and it mostly hunts below ground. The moist areas where the snake lives give it access to such prey as earthworms, soft grubs, beetles, salamanders small enough for it to handle, slugs, and snails. Indeed, the snake is a bit of a snail specialist, for its jaws and teeth have evolved to let them tug the snails from their shells to eat them. In turn, this small reptile is food for birds of prey, crows, even larger snakes, large toads and frogs, cats and dogs, weasels, and shrews. When it’s confronted, the snake flattens out, coils, and sways its body menacingly and releases a bad-smelling musk.

Reproduction

DeKay’s brown snake reproduces in the spring after brumation. Brumation is different from hibernation in that the animal needs to wake up now and then to drink water, though it doesn’t need to eat. It can fast for months at a time. After mating, the female gives birth to live young in late summer. There are usually 12 to 20 babies, but some snakes have been known to bear 41 at a time. The mother doesn’t take care of the babies after birth, but they may stay close to her for a while. Both male and female brown snakes are ready to mate when they’re about two years old. DeKay’s brown snakes probably live to be seven years old, and their conservation status is least concern.


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About the Author

Arlene Mckanic is a writer for A-Z Animals whose focus is on plants and animals of all kinds, from ants to elephants. She has a Bachelor's Degree from City College of New York. A resident of South Carolina, she loves gardening and though she doesn't have pets, a black racer snake does live in her kitchen.

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