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Only venomous rattlesnake in Michigan could be the next endangered species

Nov 13, 2015

A pair of Eastern Massasauga rattlesnakes, the only venomous snake native to Michigan.
Credit Steven Parrish / Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, the University of Michigan

The Eastern Massasauga — the sole rattlesnake to inhabit the state of Michigan — is facing rapid population loss that's prompting national concern for Michigan wildlife.

In September 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the snake as a "threatened species" under the Endangered Species Act, which would qualify the snake for national funds to help preserve the species. 

The snake is currently listed as endangered, threatened or a species of concern under every state in which it lives, according to a press release. Species are listed as threatened when they are likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.

The Eastern Massasauga is a small snake with a thick body, heart-shaped head and vertical pupils. Adult snakes grow to be about two feet long, and are usually gray or light brown with chocolate brown blotches on their backs. Younger snakes have the same markings but with more vivid colors. 

The rattlesnake has been declining rapidly over the past few decades — now, 30 percent of the historical populations are gone, or cease to exist in areas they once inhabited. 

"It’s been here for thousands of years, it’s been here long before humans have been here," said Steven Parrish, natural areas specialist in the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nicols Arboretum at the University of Michigan. "It’s just in the last 50 to 80 years or so that we’ve really seen the numbers decline." 

The number one reason for the snake's decline is due to habitat loss. Eastern Massasaugas depend on wetlands for food and shelter, yet many wetlands have been drained to make room for farms, roads, homes and urban expansion, Parrish said. 

"It’s kind of a specific habitat that they require and much of that in Michigan and throughout its range has been removed or degraded altogether," he adds.

Humans are helping extinguish the rattlesnake's population not only from urban expansion, but also by directly killing them due to innate fear. Although snakes at the University of Michigan's Matthaei Botanical Gardens bit two people in the last two years, Parrish says it is not common for snakes to attack humans. He says the snake is relatively docile and will not attack unless provoked. 

"The massasauga is not an aggressive snake," he says. "It will flee rather than confront humans, and given the chance they will just turn around."

However, the Eastern Massasauga's calm demeanor does not stop many people from killing them on site. In fact, some states have a bounty on the snake, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Massasaugas are often killed when they show up near homes or businesses, and people may go out of their way to kill or even eliminate them. Indeed, many states had bounties on all rattlesnakes, including massasaugas. 

Although the snake is relatively rare, it's decline in population could result in significant changes to the Michigan ecosystem. Parrish says the Eastern Massasauga is a keystone species — meaning it's small population still has a big part in maintaining it's surrounding habitat. For example, the species is at the middle of the food chain, as it not only preys on insects, frogs and other snakes, but it also provides food for other animals such as foxes, eagles and hawks.

The snake also helps control Michigan's rodent population by consuming mice, rats and shrew.

"Even though its numbers are pretty small, it can have a pretty large impact on the local ecosystem in which it lives," Parrish says.

There are ways for you to help protect the Eastern Massasauga in Michigan. Right now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comments before deciding to list the species as threatened. Until November 30, the federal agency will take into account all comments on why we should protect the rattlesnake. Here is a press release with directions for public commentary.

— Allana Akhtar, Michigan Radio Newsroom