Rattlesnake Roundup Planned for Protection of Rare Species

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Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake picture by Michael Redmer/Courtesy Lincoln Park Zoo

Habitat loss, persecution, and collection for the illegal pet trade has driven the eastern massasauga rattlesnake almost to extinction in northeastern Illinois. Now local wildlife agencies have united to round up the last wild individuals in an attempt to save the species locally.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and Lincoln Park Zoo are collaborating to conserve the species through capture and recovery efforts, says a news statement released by the agencies today.

“Considerable scientific data indicate eastern massasauga rattlesnakes will vanish forever if the remaining snakes aren’t found. This is an emergency situation and we must act now,” says Joe Kath, IDNR endangered species project manager.

The goal of the recovery effort is to locate the last remaining snakes in northeastern Illinois and place them in appropriate propagation facilities, including Lincoln Park Zoo. It is an effort to bolster the population and ensure the species’ survival. The goal is to increase the snake’s numbers, secure local habitat, and eventually reintroduce it to the wild.

While eastern massasauga rattlesnakes live in small pockets from western New York and southern Ontario to southern Iowa and northeastern Missouri, a recent genetic study identified three distinctive genetic groupings of the reptile in North America. The northeastern Illinois snake population is a distinct variation that will be lost forever if swift conservation action isn’t taken, conservationists have concluded.

“Substantial evidence suggests the Chicago-area population has reached critically low numbers, and is unlikely to recover to a sustainable level in the wild under existing conditions. Drastic action is needed now if we are to salvage this unique genetic group of eastern massasauga,” says Michael Redmer, a herpetologist at the FWS Chicago Field Office.

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Rattlesnakes are an iconic species that serve a crucial role in the Illinois ecosystem as both a highly evolved predator and as prey, the news statement says. “As predators, rattlesnakes control mice and rat populations, thereby reducing the spread of diseases like Lyme and Hantavirus. Rattlesnakes also are a prey species hunted by hawks, owls, cranes and some mammals.

Photo courtesy FWS

“Additionally, rattlesnake venom may serve an important role in human medicine. Researchers are currently studying the benefits of its use in certain drugs and medications.” “Sadly there are very few snakes left, and we have an ethical obligation to conserve them,” says Joanne Earnhardt, director of the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology at Lincoln Park Zoo, who serves as the eastern massasauga rattlesnake Species Survival Plan coordinator.

Lincoln Park Zoo is also spearheading the eastern massasauga rattlesnake Species Survival Plan’s five-year study of a key population of the reptiles at Big Rock Valley, headquarters of the Edward Lowe Foundation. The goal of the study, which launches in May, is to locate as many rattlesnakes as possible and follow them over several years.

Many of the existing studies on massasaugas have been focused on behavior or habitat, Earnhardt says in the news statement. “In contrast, a longitudinal study that follows individual snakes will give us a better idea about survival and reproduction rates.”

Big Rock Valley is a 2,600-acre property of forests, lakes, ponds and streams in southwestern Michigan. This population of snakes is genetically different than those ranging in northeastern Illinois. The researchers plan to implant the snakes with small transponders–the kind used to identify pets–that can be read with a special scanner whenever snakes are recaptured.

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