Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake: A Threatened Species of Oakland County

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

The Massasauga snake sunning on the trail.

Wildlife is on the move in these early days of October. Sandhill Cranes gather in flocks, squirrels scamper to hoard nuts, and on the Wilder Side of Oakland County, eastern massasauga rattlesnakes (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) slowly slither back to the wetlands.

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The eastern massasauga rattlesnake, has just been federally designated as a threatened species. After years of scientific study, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took action in September 2016, to list the snake as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explains that under the Endangered Species Act, threatened species are considered plants and animals that may become endangered species in the foreseeable future.

They said, “Across the eastern massasauga rattlesnake’s range, nearly 40 percent of the species’ population has declined. Habitat loss is considered the primary threat driving the snakes’ decline; however, as their numbers decline, other threats such as direct mortality or collection play a more significant role.”

And what does this have to do with Oakland County? Everything.

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Although populations of the eastern massasauga rattlers are found in scattered locations in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ontario; Michigan appears to be the last stronghold for this species, and Oakland County has prime habitat with viable remaining populations of Michigan’s only venomous reptile.

Six of the larger parks in our county, Addison Oaks County Park, Independence Oaks County Park, Indian Springs Metropark, Kensington Metropark, Orion Oaks County Park and Stony Creek Metropark all have these reclusive rattlers. State Recreation Areas and Seven Lakes State Park as well as many other wildlands and trail systems, especially in the northern half of our county do too. This is the reason the annual 5K race on the Paint Creek Trail, sponsored by the Michigan Nature Association, is called the Rattlesnake Run.

There is also a reason that local hospital emergency departments rarely see a venomous snake bite. The massasauga is a timid snake that chooses flight over fight, if given the chance.  It avoids detection by hiding under vegetation, woody debris or just staying in place and remaining motionless.  If an intruder gets too close it will usually coil, and then rattle a warning. On the extremely rare occasion a human is bitten, the bite almost always occurs on the dominant hand of the provoking human.

It is highly unlikely to ever see a rattlesnake in our county, but in early October the chances increase slightly. The encounter usually occurs on sunny hiking or biking trails, or a dry open patch of meadow in late afternoon sun. Rattlesnakes are cold blooded Ectotherms, animals whose regulation of body temperature depends on external sources. A sun-warmed trail is an excellent place to adjust body temperature before continuing on to the wetlands.

I feel fortunate to have photographed rattlesnakes twice in our county, one at Indian Springs four autumns ago while it casually sunned on the warm paved surface of their popular hike-bike trail, and again early last October at Independence Oaks, the site where I captured the video of a coiled and rattling eastern massasauga rattlesnake adjacent to a paved trail near a wetland. It’s important to note that the rattler coiled and buzzed after I knelt near it to take photos, warning to me to stay back. I did. Although some of our rattlers over-winter under logs, or in abandoned mammal burrows, it is believed most select moist crayfish burrows, and that’s where they remain until spring, when the hunt for mice, voles and frogs resumes.

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The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is a unique and fascinating creature of Michigan’s natural heritage, a species deserving of the added legal protection as a threatened species. As for those with snake-phobias, just leave snakes alone and they will return the favor. We are at more risk in Oakland County from humans that text while driving than we are from our native ‘swamp rattlers’, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake. “Live and Let Live” is the way to go – and it’s the law.

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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