Changing Planet

Rattlesnake Roundup Planned for Protection of Rare Species


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.


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.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • eliewriter

    What is sad to me is the lack of common sense regarding venomous snakes that seems to becoming more commonplace.
    It has become popular for government agencies to defend venomous snakes, saying they kill rodents, etc., but non-venomous snakes also kill rodents. I have not yet heard one logical argument as to what a venomous snake contributes to an ecosystem that a non-venomous snake doesn’t contribute. Any non-biased biologist can affirm that species extinction has happened naturally since the beginning of time.
    It is only common sense that someone would kill a venomous snake, rather than continuing to let it breed and increase the potential for harm.
    The other unfortunate consequence of naturalists defending venomous snakes is they are making them appear so necessary and harmless that both people and agencies–hospitals, for example–do not expect or prepare for snake encounters.
    It would be interesting to call a sampling of hospitals in areas near the habitat of the eastern Massasauga and poll them as to whether they stock the antivenin. My guess is a majority don’t because of the expense. Yet considerably more money is put into programs helping the snake to flourish. It would make much better sense to put the money into helping medical centers treat the occasional snakebite than rally to preserve the species.
    I find it ironic that governments are using money that’s in such short supply to fund actions that favor protecting a dangerous animal over a human. This mindset is not only foolish but it’s dangerous.

  • OA

    Seem to me if private collectors were allowed to keep them in the pet trade there would be a large enough selection of them now for release into the wild. A clutch raised in captivity stands a much better chance of survival by serious collectors of these and other hots. Breeders should be allowed to sign a list get some animals and in 5-10 years the wildlife agency’s get to come collect some babies for release it’s a win win in my book.

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