Into the Field to Find Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes

Every year, April/May gets the members of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan® (SSP) thinking about one thing—not spring flowers popping out of the ground, but massasaugas periscoping out of their burrows for the first time as they emerge from hibernation. This year was no different, and in early May SSP members from 11 zoos, several local wildlife agencies and universities met in southwest Michigan for our annual field surveys.

The secretive eastern massasauga rattlesnake is often more difficult to spot than this individual. Note the colored segment on its rattle, which the field surveyors used to tell which snakes had already been found earlier in the week. By marking them with distinctive colors, we could avoid capturing and handling the snakes more than was necessary. Photo by Lisa Faust

I coordinate this project every spring, and leading up to our trip I’d been eying the weather predictions with serious trepidation. With the cold, wet spring we’ve had, I was concerned the massasaugas might not have emerged from hibernation or, if they were out, that they might be hunkered down waiting for sunnier weather (much like Midwesterners have been!).

In the two previous years that we’ve surveyed in May, we’ve found around 20 unique individuals each year. Our goal with this research is to recapture individuals we’ve identified in previous years as well as new individuals. We then use this data to better understand the population’s birth rates and death rates. This is challenging because of massasaugas’ shy, reclusive nature—they’re very hard to spot!

When we encounter a massasauga, each member of a field team has a different job, including photographing the snake, recording temperature and weather conditions, and watching the snake closely to make sure it doesn’t slither away! Photo by Ron Hatcher

Despite cool temperatures and overcast skies, we were all a bit shocked when we found 19 individuals on the first day of surveying! That started off the week with a bang, and throughout the rest of the week we were busy, ultimately finding 40 individuals, including eight that had been marked in previous years.

Highlights for the week were our success in snake-hunting, the fun of in being outside in (surprisingly) nice spring weather, reconnecting with project partners and some very entertaining practical jokes—rubber snakes are apparently often just as difficult to spot as live ones!

Lisa Faust


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