In search of the elusive Massasauga Rattlesnake

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?


Akron Ohio News – County Council supports bog preservation projects – SSNL

There was a very small mention of one of my projects in the local newspaper this week. Here is the link: A Akron Ohio News – County Council supports bog preservation projects – SSNL.

This is about 2 deals that Western Reserve Land Conservancy is helping theA ClevelandA Museum ofA NaturalA History with. The museum will own these two special places, while the conservancy holds permanent restrictions over bothA properties. These 2 layers of protection, as well as restrictions held by the state of Ohio, will ensure that no matter what happens in the future, these sensitive bog habitats will remain intact for future generations to enjoy and learn from.

One of the properties contains a sphagnum mat that you can walk on, then if you jump up and down, people 20 or 30 feet away will also bounce up and down from your movement. Really a cool feeling. You do have to watch out for the poison sumac though!


Endangered Species Bulletin

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just released its Fall 2008 Endangered Species Bulletin. This quarterly publication provides a great snapshot of the current status and research on endangered species. One article of note within the bulletin covers interaction between invasive plants and pollinators.

Often when we think about invasive plants, the direct competition with native plants is the first thing on our mind. These non-native invaders have few natural enemies in their new territory, and often have very high reproductive rates. Well, what if you compound these factors with the possibility that pollinators may like the new plants better than the natives? Think that through.

If pollinators go to the invasive plants more and the native plants less, then less native plants will be pollinated. If less native plants are pollinated, there will be fewer seeds. Fewer seeds means a slower rate of reproduction. Net result, invasive plants win again.

Check out the Fall 2008 Endangered Species Bulletin for a more in depth treatment of this and other interesting subjects related to biological diversity.