Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Recovery Efforts

Photo by David Kenyon. Banner photo by Ron Hatcher.

Saving a Species

Cryptic coloration helps the eastern massasauga rattlesnake blend in expertly among the marshes, fields and prairies where it makes its home. But camouflage isn’t the only reason this snake is hard to spot in the wild. Habitat loss has resulted in this shy species being endangered through much of its range, including Illinois. Lincoln Park Zoo is working with partners across the country to guide the recovery of this rare reptile.

Projects

Conservation in the Zoo’s Backyard
Lincoln Park Zoo is working with partners to restore eastern massasauga rattlesnakes to northeastern Illinois.

Participating in the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan (SSP)®
This joint effort enlists zoos across the country to ensure a viable long-term zoo massasauga population.

Studying Michigan’s Massasaugas
Data collected on a healthy eastern massasauga rattlesnake population will help conserve the species as a whole.

Modeling the Species’ Future
Computer models help assess the status of the eastern massasauga rattlesnake across its range.


Conservation in the Zoo’s Backyard

Photo by Ron Hatcher.

Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes are native to the Chicago region, but wildlife biologists noted a drastic local decline in the species in recent years. In response, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched a Recovery Team, spurring a conservation effort that enlisted the Cook and Lake County Forest Preserves and population-biology experts here at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Together, these partners developed a restoration plan for the eastern massasauga rattlesnake in northeastern Illinois:

  • Rescue the remaining snakes in northeastern Illinois to build a breeding population
  • Restore wild habitat throughout their range
  • Reintroduce the species to the wild when good habitat and a healthy zoo population have been established

Wildlife surveys have recovered several adult snakes, which are now the foundation of a zoo-based breeding program that has produced multiple offspring. Individuals from this distinct population are managed separately from the species-wide Eastern Massasauga Species Survival Plan®.

Staff and Collaborators

Lincoln Park Zoo

 

Diane Mulkerin
Curator, Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House and Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo

     

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Mike Redmer, Fish and Wildlife Biologist


Participating in the Eastern Massasauga Species Survival Plan®

Photo by David Kenyon.

While the local recovery effort focuses on eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in northern Illinois, Lincoln Park Zoo is also helping to bring attention to the species across its range. The zoo plays a leading role in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan® (SSP).

This collaborative effort enlists zoos across the country to jointly plan breeding and transfer plans for the species. The result will be a viable long-term population, one that can be used by zoos across the country to educate their visitors about the plight of this species and also serve as the basis for future reintroduction efforts.

Curator Diane Mulkerin serves as studbook keeper, maintaining breeding records and lineages necessary for population planning. Vice President of Conservation & Science Lisa Faust, Ph.D., is the field conservation advisor.

Staff and Collaborators

Lincoln Park Zoo

Lisa Faust, Ph.D., is Lincoln Park Zoo's vice president of conservation and science  

Lisa Faust, Ph.D.
Vice President of Conservation and Science

   

Diane Mulkerin
Curator, Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House and Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Mike Redmer, Fish and Wildlife Biologist


Studying Michigan’s Massasaugas

Photo by Sharon Dewar.

In a project managed by the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake SSP and Lincoln Park Zoo, 15 zoos, Northern Illinois University and partnering wildlife agencies are studying a healthy massasauga population in Michigan.

Since 2009, more than 100 eastern massasauga rattlesnakes have been captured, examined and individually identified at the headquarters of the Edward Lowe Foundation. By monitoring these individuals over time, scientists will be able to determine important characteristics for this population that can be compared with other data across the range. Resulting data on population size, survival and reproduction will provide crucial insight for massasauga conservation plans.

Staff and Collaborators

Lincoln Park Zoo

Lisa Faust, Ph.D., is Lincoln Park Zoo's vice president of conservation and science  

Lisa Faust, Ph.D.
Vice President of Conservation and Science

     

 

Edward Lowe Foundation

Mike McCuistion, Director of Physical Resources

Northern Illinois University

Richard King, Ph.D., Professor of Ecology and Evolution
Eric Hileman, Ph.D. candidate


Modeling the Species’ Future

Assessing how a species is doing across its range is often difficult, as each local land manager or conservation agency might have a different metric they’re most interested in. In a collaboration with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and massasauga experts across the United States and Canada, Lincoln Park Zoo Vice President of Conservation & Science Lisa Faust, Ph.D., is using a computer model to try to improve our understanding of massasuaga status across its range.

Faust has built a computer model of massasauga biology, including birth and death rates and the threats across the range that might affect them (such as the effects of forest succession or road mortality). Using data collected from 65 sites in every state and province in the species’ range, the model can help determine the relative status of the species at each site. This modeling effort will help guide conservation action for the species and will be used to inform decision making about recognizing massasaugas under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Staff and Collaborators

Lisa Faust, Ph.D., is Lincoln Park Zoo's vice president of conservation and science  

Lisa Faust, Ph.D.
Vice President of Conservation and Science

     

 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Jennifer Szymanski, Endangered Species Biologist
Mike Redmer, Fish and Wildlife Biologist


About the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes feed on small mammals such as mice, shrews and voles. Found from the Midwest to New York and Ontario, they lie in wait for prey, detecting it through vibrations in the ground, a strong sense of smell and heat-sensing pits on the side of the face. A secretive species, the eastern massasauga relies on camouflage for defense and is unlikely to engage people.

Learn more about the species with the eastern massasauga rattlesnake fact sheet.


Multimedia

Keeping it Real
Every spring, zoo scientists head to Michigan to catch up with a population of eastern massasauga rattlesnakes. See how this wild fieldwork helps a local species in need of conservation.


Making a Model
How do zoo scientists make models to save species? The infographic uses eastern massasauga rattlesnakes to walk you through the process. (6.9 MB JPG)