While everyone is eager to go out into the field (thinking that today is the day they will find at least one massasauga), as SSP coordinator, I sternly herd them straight from their breakfast coffee to the conference meeting room. We must forgo for the moment the call of the wild and focus on managing the population of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan®.
Computers emerge from backpacks, notebooks open and brains engage (thanks to abundant coffee). The 11 representatives from SSP zoos report on their eastern massasauga rattlesnake events back home over the last year: births (a few), deaths (fewer), transfers (several) and lots of talk about snake courtship (one of our objectives).
Our population biology advisor, Sarah, coaches us on setting demographic and genetic objectives for the coming year. The field surveys seem easier than the science for most of us! Sarah recommends that if we want more births in the population, we need to put more males and females together….maybe this isn’t rocket science, after all.
We continue our planning process, looking at which snakes to transfer. One zoo had eight offspring born last summer, and these young snakes will go to zoos that want to join the SSP program. Oops—not studbook number 411—she can’t be transferred from his zoo! According to the curator, she is the most beautiful massasauga he’s ever seen.
Naively, I ask what makes her beautiful, and he answers, “Her coloration, especially the white outline around the markings.” We accommodate his request as we continue our planning. The prospects for the zoo population look great thanks to everyone’s collaboration.
We finish just in time for lunch—and after lunch we can head back out to the field, like others in our group, I hope to find my first massasauga today but I’m also hoping I don’t step on it before I find it. That camouflage is very effective.
Joanne Earnhardt, Ph.D., is director of the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology and coordinator of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan®.