In search of the elusive Massasauga Rattlesnake

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The federal candidate species Massasauga Rattlesnake

A rare Massasauga Rattlesnake found during a scientific survey in northern Ohio

Working with conservationists, biologists, naturalists and other Nature-loving folks has lots of advantages.  A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a small expedition to count and measure Massasauga Rattlesnakes (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) in northeast Ohio.  Because these snakes are a candidate for the federal endangered species list, you can’t just go out and catch them.  You have to have a permit.  So, it was a real treat to get invited along on this little excursion into the wild.

These small rattlesnakes are reclusive and generally hang out in wet meadows and forest edges near wet meadows or old fields.  They do not move far, so the populations of Massasaugas are fairly localized.  That means that if you wipe out the hibernation habitat for these snakes, they will not persist in the area, and rattlesnakes from other populations are not likely to immigrate to fill the void.

According to Herpetologist Greg Lipps, gravid (pregnant) females do not go more than 40 meters from their hibernation spot.  That means that if you find a gravid female like the one in the photo above, you are in the breeding habitat for the Massasauga.  These areas are key for conservation.

There aren’t many of these snakes left, and there aren’t many places where they still thrive.  Conserving the right habitat in the right places is critical to the future of these snakes in Ohio. Greg helps groups like Western Reserve land Conservancy and agencies like the Ohio Department of Natural Resources inventory and understand these fascinating creatures.  Much of the habitat preserved for the Massasauga recently by these groups has been due to Greg’s scientific pursuits.  He tags the snakes with small electronic tags, takes blood samples, weighs them,  and replaces them in the exact spot they were collected from.  His data and knowledge have substantially advanced efforts to understand the populations, ecology, and habitat needs of the snake.  We were very fortunate to have the opportunity to be in the field with such a great herpetologist.

Here’s a video of the trip, including Greg and Western Reserve Land Conservancy Field Director Brett Rodstrom talking about the snakes.  You can catch me at 1:22 on the video munching on a snack and admitting that “I’m a little afraid…”

I might have been a little afraid, but I can’t imagine a greater experience…seeking out a rare venomous snake in northern Ohio.  How wild is that?


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