Core Activities

Species ID Keys

?This identification key was designed to permit participants to use simple visual cues to distinguish between the various species of adult reptiles and amphibians currently known to occur in eastern Ontario. Keys typically rely on the user to make a series of basic yes/no decisions. Each decision leads to either a conclusive species identification or a further decision. Please do not guess at any stage of the ID process. For beginners, this key should be used with a field guide or a set of identifier cards (i.e., a secondary visual reference). Whenever possible, support your final decision by submitting a corroborative photo along with your sighting data.

The first decision is to determine whether the creature is a reptile or an amphibian:

1a. Skin is scaly - reptiles [Go to 2]
1b. Skin is not scaly - amphibians [Go to 3]

The reptiles include turtles, snakes, and lizards. Lizards are probably the most straightforward of the reptile group - Ontario only has one species.

2a. Reptile has no legs and no shell - snakes [Go to KEY #3]
2b. Reptile has legs and a shell - turtles [Go to KEY #2]
2c. Reptile has legs, but no shell - Five-lined Skink

The amphibians include frogs, toads, and salamanders. Salamanders are very secretive, and won't usually be observed unless you are actively searching for them. Far less secretive are the frogs and toads, which can also make their presence known by sound (i.e., calls).

3a. Amphibian has front legs that are smaller than its hind legs; young individuals may have a short (vestigial) tail - frogs/toads [Go to KEY #1]
3b. Amphibian has front and hind legs that are approximately the same size; specimen also has a long tail - salamanders [Go to KEY #4]

KEY #1 - FROGS & TOADS (10 species) [Top of Page]

101a. Skin is covered in warty bumps - [Go to 102]
101b. Skin is essentially smooth, and not covered in warty bumps - [Go to 103]

102a. Skin colour is variably brownish; warty bumps are large, especially behind the eyes - American Toad
102b. Skin colour is variably gray or greenish; warty bumps are small - Gray Treefrog

103a. There is a distinct black patch behind and under each eye - Wood Frog
103b. There is no distinct black patch behind and under each eye - [Go to 104]

104a. There is a darker-coloured X-shaped pattern on the back - Spring Peeper
104b. There is no noticeable X-shaped pattern on the back - [Go to 105]

105a. Back has three, sometimes broken, stripes; fingers and toes have adhesive disks (i.e., suction cups) - Western Chorus Frog
105b. Back is not striped; fingers and toes lack adhesive disks - [Go to 106]

106a. Backside does not have a pair of vein-like folds; no strong patterning or blotching - American Bullfrog
106b. Backside has a pair of vein-like folds and patterning or blotching - [Go to 107]

107a. Upper body has many distinct, large, hard-edged spots - [Go to 108]
107b. Upper body has soft-edged spots or blotches - [Go to 109]

108a. The inside of the hind legs is not bright yellow (usually green); spots are rounded - Northern Leopard Frog
108b. The inside of the hind legs is bright yellow or orange (never green); spots are squarish and usually in two rows down the backside - Pickerel Frog

109a. Hind thighs have irregular blotches only - Mink Frog
109b. Hind thighs have irregular blotches and narrow cross-banding - Green Frog

KEY #2 - THE TURTLES (8 species) [Top of Page]

201a. Shell is leathery soft and without scutes (i.e., segments) - Spiny Softshell
201b. Shell is hard and has scutes/segments - [Go to 202]

202a. Chin and neck are bright yellow - Blanding's Turtle
202b. Chin and neck are not bright yellow - [Go to 203]

203a. Shell has large yellow or orange spots and is typically less than 14cm long - Spotted Turtle
203b. Shell has no large yellow or orange spots - [Go to 204]

204a. Side of head has no lines; rear of shell is serrated - Snapping Turtle
204b. Side of head has lines - [Go to 205]

205a. Reddish markings occur along the edge of the shell - [Go to 206]
205b. No reddish markings occur along the edge of the shell - [Go to 207]

206a. There is no reddish or orange spot behind the eye - Midland Painted Turtle
206b. There is a reddish or orange spot behind the eye - Red-eared Slider

207a. Side of head has two light lines and no yellow spot behind the eye - Eastern Musk Turtle
207b. Side of head has many lines and a yellow spot behind the eye - Northern Map Turtle

KEY #3 - THE SNAKES (9 species) [Top of Page]

301a. Upper body is emerald green (or blue if roadkill) - Smooth Greensnake
301b. Upper body is black, with a ring around the neck; belly is yellow - Ring-necked Snake
301c. Upper body is striped or blotchy, not uniform; patterning may be hard to see - [Go to 302]

302a. Upper body is strongly or subtly striped, not blotchy - [Go to 303]
302b. Upper body is strongly or subtly blotchy, not striped - [Go to 306]

303a. Upper body is brownish or grayish with light striping - [Go to 304]
303b. Upper body has alternating yellow and black stripes - [Go to 305]

304a. A single stripe is bordered by small dark flecks; belly is light - DeKay's Brownsnake
304b. A double stripe is not bordered by small dark spots; belly is bright orange or reddish - Red-bellied Snake (*Note 1)

305a. There is a white spot in front of the eye - Northern Ribbonsnake
305b. There is no white spot in front of the eye - Eastern Gartersnake (*Note 3)

306a. Upper body is cream-coloured with reddish-brown blotches outlined in black; there is usually a Y-shaped blotch behind the head - Milksnake (*Note 2)
306b. Upper body is brown to black; faint blotching may be present - [Go to 307]

307a. Upper body is dark gray to brown; scales have ridges (i.e., keeled) giving a rough appearance; near water - Northern Watersnake (*Note 3,Note 4)
307b. Upper body is black; faint blotching may be apparent; scales are smooth and shiny (i.e., not keeled) - Gray Ratsnake (*Note 2,Note 3)

KEY #4 - SALAMANDERS (7 species) [Top of Page]

401a. Large (more than 8 cm) salamander; tufted red gills occur behind the head - Mudpuppy (*Note 5)
401b. Smaller salamander; no tufted red gills behind the head - [Go to 402]

402a. Spots are cream-coloured, yellow, or orange on a dark body - Spotted Salamander
402b. Spots are pale blue on a dark body - Blue-spotted Salamander
402c. Spots are reddish with a dark border - [Go to 403]
402d. No spots, or spots occur as dark peppery speckles - [Go to 404]

403a. Body is bright red or orange - Eastern Newt (immature terrestrial "red eft" stage)
403b. Body is olive or brownish - Eastern Newt (mature aquatic stage)

404a. Belly is white with black spots; hind feet have four toes - Four-toed Salamander
404b. Belly is not white; hind feet have five toes - [Go to 405]

405a. No stripe down the back, or a single reddish or orange stripe down the back - Eastern Red-backed Salamander
405b. Double stripes down the back are light and yellowish - Northern Two-lined Salamander

*Note 1: Red-bellied snakes can also have a gray phase (i.e., upper body is grayish).
*Note 2: Very small ratsnakes resemble milksnakes (i.e., blotching is very pronounced, not faint), but do not have the milksnake's Y-shaped marking behind the head.
*Note 3: Melanistic gartersnakes have black bodies, no blotching, and keeled scales.
*Note 4: At first glance, a wet watersnake can look as black as a dry ratsnake.
*Note 5: Mudpuppies, unlike other salamanders, are permanently aquatic and never occur on dry land.


Assistance for this project was provided by the Ministry of Natural Resources


The Government of Canada Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk

This project is supported by Ontario Nature