I was lucky to be able to join the eastern massasauga rattlesnake survey team in southeastern Michigan a couple weeks ago, part of Lincoln Park Zoo’s efforts to save the species, which is endangered in Illinois. I arrived excited to search, but as a novice, I was first shown photos to get the “search image” in my mind of what a snake looks like with its cryptic coloration hidden among vegetation. I was also given snake tongs—a pole about 3 feet long with pincers at the end—for picking up any snakes I might find. Then I was off to wander soggy wetlands full of 5-foot-high cattails with my team of fellow searchers, led by Dan Boehm, one of Lincoln Park Zoo’s zoological managers.
Almost immediately upon entering our assigned survey area one of my teammates found a snake! I ran over to see it lying calmly in the sunshine on some fallen cattails. We recorded where the snake was, what it was doing and what kind of vegetation it was near as well as environmental variables, such as temperature, wind speed, humidity and amount of cloud cover. Then we carefully collected the snake, placing it in a pillowcase inside a bucket to take back to the lab for more data collection on the snake itself.
With this first find, we were energized to keep searching for more! After about an hour of searching, searching, searching for a brown-and-black rattlesnake amidst brown cattails and black shadows, I finally found one as well! I was so excited!
My snake was curled up and partially covered by some leaning cattails. As a newbie, I was eager to pick it up with my snake tongs, but it wriggled a little, so Dan assisted me in getting the snake to the pillowcase. I proudly announced to the rest of the survey team over the walkie-talkie that I had found a snake and we’d bring it to the lab soon.
I’m pleased to say I found three rattlesnakes throughout the time we spent in Michigan. It was definitely an enjoyable and satisfying week of helping monitor this eastern massasauga rattlesnake population.
Kristine Schad, M.S., is an associate population biologist in Lincoln Park Zoo’s Population Management Center.