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Faculty and students working to remove rattlesnake species from endangered list

  • Photo of the eastern massasauga rattlesnake
  • Photo of the eastern massasauga rattlesnake

Posted on April 03, 2017

There are almost 20 species of snakes that are native to Michigan, but the eastern massasauga rattlesnake is the only venomous one. Due to snake fungal disease, the species slithered its way onto the U.S. Endangered Species List in September 2016. 

Jennifer Moore, biology professor at Grand Valley, and a team of students, have been conducting ongoing research in an effort to ultimately save the eastern massasauga rattlesnake species. Moore said the species transitioning onto the endangered list is actually a positive move.

“The focus will now shift to recovery of the species, and they will now be afforded different protections that they didn’t have before,” she said.

Once a species becomes listed as “endangered” or “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it receives special protections by the federal government. This means it is now illegal to trade, sell, harm, hunt, kill or capture the eastern massasauga. Moore said the species is threatened or endangered in every state where the species resides.

Snake fungal disease was first detected in Michigan massasaugas in 2013. Aside from studying population demography and how habitat management activities may affect the presence of the disease, Moore’s team is also aiming to better understand the ecology of the fungus, Ophidiomyces, which causes snake fungal disease.

The team has been concentrating on long-term monitoring and testing of a population near Hastings, and at four other sites in Michigan including Bois Blanc Island, which Moore said is a haven for rattlesnakes.

Danielle Bradke, a graduate student majoring in biology, said aside from the disease, eastern massasaugas have suffered large population declines due to habitat loss, road mortality and persecution by people who are afraid of snakes or don't like them.

"Like other animals, these snakes have an important role in the ecosystem," Bradke said. "Protecting this species means protecting their wetland habitats, which is very valuable because they control flooding, help maintain good water quality and provide suitable habitats for many other animals and plants."

Aside from field research, the team has been monitoring the species at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute in Barry County to assess their long-term viability.

Conducting research is only half the battle when it comes to protecting these snakes. Public education about the species has been a central focus of the Grand Valley team's efforts through media appearances and conference presentations.

"If the public has a better understanding of the importance of these snakes for healthy, functioning wetland ecosystems, people might be more inclined to support rattlesnake, wetland and species conservation, as well as environmental stewardship more generally," Moore said.