Sunday, May 24, 2009

Helping the Eastern Massasauga

Many species of snakes used to live in Northeastern Illinois but over the years increasing development, non native invasive plants, and the pet trade have led to them becoming almost extinct. In an effort to save a particular species of snake from extinction, the Lake County Forest Preserve District is teaming up with a bunch of conservation agencies including Lincoln Park Zoo to capture snakes so they can be bred in captivity and returned to the wild. Mom is excited about this because she has ties with both of these organizations and she loves snakes.

The Eastern Massasauga is a shy snake that is on the Illinois Endangered Species List and could soon find itself designated endangered on the national level. At about 2 feet in length with very distinct markings, the Eastern Massasauga is crucial to our ecosystem because it eats rodents that can carry disease and is food for hawks, owls, cranes, and other mammals. We really need these guys around. If predators cannot find prey they may start looking at me as a food source. Yikes! Their venon is also being studied to determine if it can be used in drugs and medications.

Did I mention that the Eastern Massasauga is a rattlesnake? It is a rattlesnake and it is also a pit viper, which means that it has heat-sensing pit organs between the eye and nostril on both sides of its heads. These pits sense body heat from animals and is a very effective tool used in hunting prey. The pits lead to very sensitive organs that tell the snake what type of prey it has located - prey that it can eat or prey that is too big for it to handle. They also have a pair of long hollow fangs that they use to inject venom into their prey and the really cool thing about their fangs is that each fang can be engaged simultaneously or independently. The venom uses specialized digestive enzymes that disrupt the cardiovascular system and even though the venom is more toxic than that of other rattlesnakes, it is generally regarded as less dangerous to humans because they inject less venom.

The Eastern Massasauga was once common in Illinois and other Midwest states. Officials don't know how many exist in Lake County, but they do know that the number is very low? How low? Only 11 were found between 2006 and 2008, most in one undisclosed area outside Lake County. Why is the area undisclosed? Most people are afraid of snakes and if the location of the snakes was made public, officials fear that people might track them down and kill them or use them in the pet trade.

Tracking snakes is very hard work. In 2008 researchers spent several hundred hours looking for snakes and only found two. In Lake County, there haven't been any confirmed sightings in over 15 years, with the last one being in an area south of where we live, on the southern edge of the county.

When Mom is handling a snake at the zoo, part of her presentation revolves around the conservation of snakes. Snakes are just as important as all the cute and cuddly animals you see when you go hiking. Your chances of seeing a snake when you hike in our area is rare, just ask Mom. She is constantly on the lookout for snakes and very rarely sees them. She is likely to never see an Eastern Massasauga in the wild and that makes her sad.

Even if you don't like snakes, please respect them and their place in the ecosystem. Snakes are fascinating, highly evolved reptiles that have been around for almost 150 million years. If you see a snake in the wild, please do not kill it. Snakes are not out to bite humans and most snakes shy away from areas that humans inhabit. Snakes want to do their thing and be left alone, so let them do their thing. We need snakes and they need us now more than ever to protect them and their habitat.


Salinger The Pug said...


(mom is passed out on the floor...she's terrified of snakes!)

Her hat is off to you Stubby...she can clean up puke, poop, blood or any other grossness...but she can't even look at a snake.

Stubby said...

Salinger - I hope your mom is okay - I didn't want anyone to pass out from reading my post.

I only like snakes because Mom does. I have never even seen a snake in person before, but Mom is always telling me about the snakes she handles at the zoo.

I'm so sorry that your mom is so snake phobic. Maybe if she visits my mom at the zoo she can overcome her fear.

Stubby xoxo