In Search Of…. The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake?


Many people in Michigan are surprised to hear that we do have one (and only one) venomous snake, the Eastern Massasauga. They might be more surprised and concerned to hear how the populations of these snakes are rapidly declining, not just in Michigan, but throughout their range. In Michigan the snake is listed by the DNR as a species “of special concern”. This means we know they are in trouble; we are just not yet certain how serious the problem is. Other states within the range of the Massasauga all list them as endangered or threatened. If something isn’t done, these really special animals may soon disappear all together.

Five years ago a number of zoos (including John Ball Zoo), Michigan DNR, Federal Fish and Wildlife as well as some universities began a long term population study in Southwestern Michigan. The task was to work together to formulate a better understanding of this snake’s habits. This work is not done behind a desk or at a table, but out in the swamp, where a few Massasaugas still survive.  

And so, each spring a few of us from John Ball Zoo spend a week wading through the mud and the muck looking for this small, reclusive snake. The work is far from glamorous and at times really tests your patience and strength. While trying to avoid mud holes (in which you can sink up to your waist or farther) and ticks (which will inevitably will find a way to travel with you), you must work your way through thorns and cattails, and try to avoid the ever present poison sumac. However, finding just one snake makes it all worthwhile! In the past five years we have captured and tagged over 400 individual snakes. The information logged about each snake will be invaluable as we try to formulate a management plan for these animals. By the way, GPS coordinates are taken at each capture site and the snakes are returned to that exact spot after a brief visit to the lab.

Now the really good news, the project has received approval for another 5 years! The significance of information formulated period of 10 years study will be incredible.

I feel very fortunate to be part of an institution that supports not only this important project, but so many others across the state and around the world!        

About Dan Malone

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ANIMAL CARE SUPERVISOR at John Ball Zoo.  Specializes in reptiles and amphibians, but also mammals including chimpanzees.  

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