Update, March 11, 2020: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a draft national recovery plan that looks to secure and create more habitat for the snake. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy are all involved.
Original story: The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is in trouble everywhere it roams – or, perhaps more appropriately, slithers.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers it a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. That means it’s “likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.”
The snakes’ range once extended from central New York and southern Ontario to southcentral Illinois and eastern Iowa. That’s still true, but only to a degree, the Service said.
Its numbers have “steadily shrunk.”
“Generally, only small, isolated populations remain,” the Service added. “The eastern massasauga is listed as endangered, threatened, or a species of concern in every state and province where it is found.”
But there may be hope.
Research carried out in Pennsylvania reveals that it’s possible to help snakes within those pockets to survive and thrive.
But it takes work.
Howard Reinert, a biology professor at the College of New Jersey, has studied massasaugas in western Pennsylvania since the late 1970s. He’s snake numbers dwindle and contract.
The reason, he said, is habitat.
“Massasaugas require two different types of habitat,” Reinert said. “They require wetland habitat for overwintering, and they require upland, old field, remnant prairie habitat for foraging and gestation.”
Those two habitats need to be close together, too. Massasaugas are “pretty sedentary.”
“They have fairly small activity ranges. So they can’t travel real far and tend not to,” Reinert said.
The problem, in western Pennsylvania as in most places, he added, is that such habitats are increasingly rare. Strip mining, development, road construction and aging forests have all been working against massasaugas.
Reinert, though, spent the last several years manipulating a western Pennsylvania site that still had massasaugas. Their habitat had shrunk; what was 70 acres of prime snake land in the 1950s was down to six by the winter of 2012-13.
The property, which had grown into a pine plantation, was completely timbered. Habitat restoration began, so that by summer of 2014 the site – with lots of low-to-the-ground vegetation holding lots more meadow voles and small prey species — looked “like massasauga habitat,” Reinert said. Maintenance of the property continued thereafter.
In the meantime, researchers captured a few massasaugas. They were implanted with transmitters and their movements monitored.
“We wanted to figure out, can we create massasauga habitat? Will they use it? And how long will that take?” Reinert said.
The answers were yes, yes, and not long.
Rattlesnakes moved into the area quickly and spent just as much time there as in their existing habitat, Reinert said. Researchers found evidence of breeding and reproduction, too.
“The result is that we think we can provide sufficient habitat to ensure the long-term survival of the massasauga at this particular site,” Reinert said.
Whether that success can be replicated elsewhere is the next question.
The Mid-Atlantic Center for Herpetology and Conservation – which works to protect reptiles and amphibians throughout the Northeast – believes there is value in having massasaugas around.
The snakes are a “flagship species” for wetland conservation and water quality, it noted. They live in the same headwater wetlands fed by springs so important to people.
“These particular spring-fed wetlands provide clean, highly oxygenated water into our landscapes, essential for all aquatic organisms. The streams and rivers that we utilize for drinking water and for recreation begin in headwater Eastern Massasauga wetlands,” the Center said in a statement. “People from all walks of life, from the trout fisherman to those that simply prefer drinking clean water, should be eastern massasauga advocates.”
That’s all true, Reinert said.
But to really restore the massasauga to places it once lived will require more than manipulating habitat, he said.
Restoring habitat has proven to be relatively simple.
“But that’s not going to bring the snakes back,” he said.
They have to be close enough to expand into the area on their own or they’d have to be reintroduced from elsewhere. Some more research would need to be done on how snakes would respond to that, he said.
“Whether the political will for that or interest in doing that, that would be another topic,” Reinert said.
The Massasauge rattlesnake file
Want to know more about eastern massasauga rattlesnakes? Here’s a little natural history lesson on the species.
- The snakes are relatively small compared to, say, timber rattlesnakes. They’re generally 18 to 27 inches long, though the occasional specimen can get bigger.
- Massasaugas reproduce every other year. Females most often give birth to six to eight live young in August.
- Massasuagas are born with one rattle on their tail. They add one each time they molt, or shed their skin, and can ultimately end up with 12 or so.
- Their rattle is quiet. It’s been described as sounding like an insect. It can be heard up to about 15 feet away. Snakes do not always rattle when approached, however.
- In terms of appearance, massasaugas generally are grayish in color, with dark brown, irregularly-shaped, chain-like blotches along their backs. They have two or three rows of smaller, rounder spots on their sides.
- Some non-venomous snakes sometimes mistaken for massasaugas are the eastern milksnake, eastern hog-nosed snake and northern watersnake.
- Massasaugas hibernate over winter, often using crayfish or small mammal burrows. They emerge in spring, usually around late March or early April.