Snake, Rattle and Roll Call

Much like Chicagoans on the first warm Saturday of the year, each spring eastern massasauga rattlesnakes (“EMRs” for brevity) emerge from the holes in which they hibernate all winter. Like us, they’re ready for some sun and a good meal—in their case, to kick-start growth and reproduction for the year. Each year, members of the EMR Species Survival Plan (SSP)—the group that manages EMRs in zoos—gather at a site in southwestern Michigan to study the snakes as they’re emerging.

An eastern massasauga rattlesnake (EMR), characterized by its distinctive saddle pattern, blends into its natural habitat in southwestern Michigan.

I’m always excited to start our week in Michigan. It’s great to get out from behind my computer and get a little mud on my boots. Since this is our fifth year of surveying, we’re starting to see some exciting returns on our hard work, providing even more incentive. This year, in early May, we found 54 snakes, but only 12 of them were completely new to our study. This means we have a large portion of the population “marked”, thanks to diligent surveying by the SSP group and our collaborators from Northern Illinois University.

Survey team members identify a recaptured snake by reading its embedded PIT (passive integrated transponder) tag.

Recapturing these snakes year after year gives us valuable data on survival, population size and whether this population is growing. We had a few surprise recaptures. One snake we hadn’t found since the first year of our study in 2009 made an appearance again. Other snakes we find every year reappeared like clockwork. The data we’re collecting should also help us understand how to better monitor and preserve populations across the species’ North American range. Reconnecting with dedicated EMR enthusiasts from zoos across the country is also rewarding. SSP participants try to breed the zoo population of EMRs throughout the year, then come together for this intense week of field work. This year, we had 35 attendees from 14 zoos, three universities and multiple state and federal agencies interested in EMR conservation.

Researchers use an infrared thermometer to measure the temperature of an EMR’s head, body and tail.
EMR survey team members represent 14 zoos, three universities and multiple state and federal agencies interested in EMR conservation.

Going forward, we’ll miss collaborating with one participant: Lincoln Park Zoo conservation biologist Joanne Earnhardt, Ph.D., who recently retired from the zoo and stepped down as EMR SSP coordinator. (The post is now held by Detroit Zoo’s curator of reptiles, Jeff Jundt.) Joanne’s bittersweet departure, though, was leavened by the presentation of a cake decorated with super-sized replicas of her least favorite species: ticks. Of course, the real icing on the cake has been the impact she’s had on EMR conservation in the Great Lakes region over the past six years. Lisa Faust Lisa Faust, Ph.D., is vice president of conservation and science at Lincoln Park Zoo.

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