Surveying Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes for Species Conservation

June 17, 2021

Each spring, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake emerges from the hole that it hibernates in all winter long, ready for sunshine and food to kick-start its growth and reproduction for the year. This creates the perfect opportunity for scientists to study this illusive, threatened species.

Every year, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan® (SSP), the group that works to manage these snakes in Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoos, gathers at a site in southwest Michigan to study the species as it emerges.

This year, Lisa Faust, senior director of population ecology, Dan Boehm, curator of small mammals and reptiles, and Brad Krzyzanowski, assistant lead keeper at Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House, journeyed to Michigan to partake in this crucial fieldwork over the course of six days.

What exactly does this fieldwork entail? The goal of the project is to study the population and examine as many snakes as possible. The eastern massasauga rattlesnakes are safely caught, examined, and individually identified before being released back into their habitat. This process includes placing PIT tags (similar to a pet dog identification chip) in new snakes, collecting important data such as size, weight, and growth, as well as collecting samples for ongoing research. The collected data is invaluable at describing how the current population of massasaugas are doing and can help scientists understand how to better monitor and preserve populations across their native range.

Can you spot the eastern massasauga rattlesnake in the above photo? Notice how well this species camouflages into its environment. Photo courtesy of Dan Boehm.

More than 25 people from 18 zoos and aquariums, universities, and government agencies came together to survey the species. In total, 34 snakes were examined, measured, and released by the SSP team. The total number of snakes observed this year was lower than in the past due to the ground still being cold and the rattlesnakes just beginning to emerge.

Since the project’s launch in 2009, scientists have identified more than 925 individual eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in the study!

An eastern massasauga rattlesnake providing critical information to scientists. Once measured and tagged, the snake will be released back into its habitat. Photo courtesy of Dan Boehm.

Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes unique coloration helps them blend in expertly among the marshes, fields, and prairies where they live, making them difficult to spot. But camouflage isn’t the only reason this snake is hard to spot in the wild. Habitat loss over the last three decades has resulted in this species becoming threatened. Gathering demographic data from a healthy population – like the one that the SSP monitors in Michigan – helps scientists better understand how to conserve the species across its range.

Lincoln Park Zoo is proud to work with partners across the country to guide the recovery of this rare snake.

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