Natural Areas Stewardship Assists with Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Surveys

Recently natural areas stewardship staff got the opportunity to take a step back from our day-to-day work to help with Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake surveys in a natural area owned by Springfield Township, in western Oakland County. The surveys were conducted by the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI).

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is Michigan’s only venomous snake and is a federally threatened species. Their populations have been in steady declining due to the rapid loss of their wetland habitats and persecution by humans. While these snakes are venomous, they rarely strike unless they believe they are truly threatened. They prefer to remain completely still and rely on their camouflage to avoid threats.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. Photo by Andrew Hoffman CC BY-NA-ND 4.0. No changes were made to the photo.

Once we got out to the site, we learned that monitoring for the Eastern Massasauga is actually pretty simple. It doesn’t require any fancy equipment or tools, just our eyes, and ears! After MNFI scientists trained us how to conduct the surveys, we headed out to comb through targeted natural areas.

For most of the morning our group got skunked. Our morale was getting low and we were about to head back for lunch when one of the volunteers shouted, “I found one!” After we spotted the snake, we captured it with special snake tongs, placed it in a pillowcase, and checked to see if it was a recapture (caught in previous surveys).

Scott, a fellow volunteer, holding one of the two Massasaugas he spotted. The perspective of the photo makes the snake look larger than it actually is. Scott is holding the snake far from his body with the snake tongs. Photo captured by Emma Campbell.

After the snake was safely captured, it was brought back to MNFI’s pop-up lab. Once there, the snake was placed in a bin and gently pressed with a clear piece of plastic. This was done so that measurements and other data could be safely collected. They measured the length of the snake and length of the rattle, weighed the snake, and determined its sex. After all of the data was collected, the snake was returned to the exact location where it was captured.

The massasauga, back at the lab, in the bin where the necessary measurements will be taken. Photo by Emma Campbell.

All in all, being able to see Michigan’s only venomous snake up close and personal was such an amazing experience. We were truly blessed to be able to learn from the scientists from MNFI, Yu Man Lee and Reine Sovey. They generously passed along knowledge and facts about these special snakes, making the monitoring so much more interesting.

If you would like to learn more about the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, click the following link: