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Massasauga rattlesnake study aims to protect Michigan’s federally threatened species

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Photo courtesy of Potter Park Zoo
Massasauga rattlesnakes are a federally threatened species. This year, Potter Park Zoo participated in a long-term study counting the snakes in southern Michigan. They found 46.

A study tracking the population of the federally threatened Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake is seeing higher numbers than expected in Michigan.

For the past twelve years, several organizations in the Midwest and Canada have participated in the long-term study, including Lansing’s Potter Park Zoo. Ginny Miecznikowski is a bird and reptile keeper at the zoo.

She said this year they were able to collect data on about 20 new snakes found in their search area in southwest Michigan.

“Which means they were either babies that were born recently or they could have been adults that we just hadn’t found before,” she said.

In total, they found 46 massasauga rattlesnakes. Miecznikowski said this was surprising given the hot weather during the study. The goal is to identify where the snakes are living to better protect their habitats as their population remains low.

“It was close to 90 degrees everyday and we still found 46 snakes, which is a very good number for the study and in those high temperatures we weren’t expecting to find very much because the snakes, you know, don’t like to be out when it’s super hot,” she said.

The number of snakes found varies from year to year, sometimes reaching as high as 100.

“This site in Michigan is doing pretty well, and we want to use that data to then extrapolate and then give to other states so that they can be informed on what kind of areas to protect,” she said.

Miecznikowski said the loss of natural habitats is one of the biggest factors behind the snakes’ decline. They typically live in wetlands and play an important role in controlling the population of rodents that can spread diseases or ticks, she said. But roads and new developments threaten their habitats.

“They don’t like to cross roads so when their habitat gets fragmented up by roads, then that can be a big issue for them because they can’t go out and expand,” she said.

Massasauga rattlesnakes are rare and you’re unlikely to find them out in the wild, Miecznikowski said. But, the Potter Park Zoo does have one female in their exhibit for the public to see and learn more about the reptile.

Melorie Begay is WKAR-FM's weekend host and a general assignment reporter.
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