Ready to Rattle

One of the thirteen eastern massasauga rattlesnakes born at Lincoln Park Zoo in June 2014. These new arrivals, which will lose their blue eyes with their first shed, offer a big boost for efforts to conserve this species, which is endangered in Illinois.

One of the thirteen eastern massasauga rattlesnakes born at Lincoln Park Zoo in June 2014. These new arrivals, which will lose their blue eyes with their first shed, offer a big boost for efforts to conserve this species, which is endangered in Illinois.

Baby Massasauga Rattlesnakes Boost Local Recovery Effort

Tiny scales, delicate spots…and venomous fangs. Thirteen eastern massasauga rattlesnakes are among Lincoln Park Zoo’s newest arrivals, boosting zoo efforts to restore this threatened local species.

Found from the Midwest to New York and Ontario, eastern massasauga rattlesnakes are now endangered in much of their range, including Illinois. The species’ native fields and marshes have largely been converted for agriculture and development, denying the snakes the space they need to hunt small mammals—and hibernate through chilly winters.

To reverse this decline, Lincoln Park Zoo has teamed up with partners including 21 zoos, Northern Illinois University, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Cook County Forest Preserve District and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Massasauga recovery efforts encompass everything from building and managing a zoo breeding population to studying healthy massasaugas in Michigan to see how the species thrives there.

Zoo experts do hear the occasional concern about working to conserve a venomous species. But eastern massasauga rattlesnakes fill a key niche in their native habitats. “Massasaugas play a really important role managing wetlands rodent populations,” says Curator Diane Mulkerin. The shy species also poses a negligible threat to people, preferring to sit still and use natural camouflage to avoid detection when the rare hiker comes calling.

Adult massasaugas can reach up to 30 inches in length, but the newborns measure just 6–7 inches. Thriving under expert care behind the scenes, the little snakes have vibrant blue eyes and “starter rattles.” The blue eyes will go away after the snakes shed their first skin in the next couple weeks, but rattles will only grow in size—and noise—as new segments are added with each seasonal shed after that.

“They don’t sound exactly like rattlers yet, but that will come as they get older,” says Mulkerin.

The small snakes are the first-ever massasaugas bred at the zoo. Their arrival follows years of effort from animal care staff, who diligently worked to offer the right conditions for breeding, including months-long winter cooldowns that simulated the species’ natural seasonal state of reduced activity, called brumation.

That hard work paid off, and the new arrivals are a welcome boost for an imperiled population. “There’s still a long road ahead for any recovery effort,” says Mulkerin. “But this is a great first step.”

 

By James Seidler • Published June 25, 2014


Learn More

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)

Eastern massasauga rattlesnake

Massasaugas Take the Season Off
A winter cool down behind the scenes at Regenstein Small Mammal–Reptile House primes endangered eastern massasauga rattlesnakes for spring breeding.