Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Readers Write In: Two Questions About Massasauga Rattlesnakes

One of my homes is in Georgina and the land is for game management including the rattlesnake and/or most other snakes as I believe they are vital to biodiversity. I have sighted two in last two weeks but my question is what are best practices for supporting the population? I think the best may be posting signs around the property "don't disturb the snakes" but thoughts or comments appreciated.

Thank you

John L.

Georgina, Ontario

   This question was an unusual one for me to receive. Usually I hear from people wanting to know how to make their property less appealing to snakes, not more!

   The only rattlesnake in Ontario is the Massasauga (Sisturus catenatus) and they are rare in the province and protected by Canada (they may be getting some federal protection soon in the United States as well). Ontario Nature provides some brief information here about how people can be good stewards of reptiles and amphibians but there is not a lot of detail.

   Fortunately, there is a lot of information in the habitat management guidelines produced by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. I believe the version for the midwest region is applicable to Ontario and its Massasaugas. I suggest reading through those guidelines, but in general Massasaugas like open areas, such as meadows, and these areas can be maintained through prescribed burning. There are lots of other specific recommendations in the guidelines that you can use depending on what kind of habitats are available on your property.

    As far as signs around your property, here are some considerations. Some people think they are doing everyone a favor if they kill snakes. If you live by these folks you should probably tell them that their help is not wanted or appreciated. On the other hand, if your property is relatively isolated it is probably best not to bring attention to the fact that there are rare snakes there. This way, you won't attract poachers or snake-haters.

  Thanks for your interest in sharing your land with rattlesnakes!

*****

I really like your blog. It gives a lot of insight into the animals out and about. 

During a recent fishing trip at a farm pond a few miles out side of Rushsylvania, Ohio.  I was well doing my business, and noticed a almost all black snake looking right at me with a funky speckled dark pattern on its back. It almost did not move. I would not have noticed it if it was not for it flicking its tongue. It blended in quite quite well. I got a good look at it, and it hit me that I was face to face with a melanistic Massasagua. I must say, it was about 2-3 feet long. 4 tops. But man was it FAT! lol

What actually made me really go WOW was it's behavior. It was too calm. In my experience in the area, garter snake like to strike or they just run away FAST. The Northern water snakes in that area will give you a good scare. And the Hognoses will just play dead. This snake KNEW i was there and just waited for me to get lost. I left it be. I figured it did not want to harm me, why would I want to harm it. 

But my question is, how often do these snakes show up with that sort of coloring?  Is it rare, or did I just see something that happens a lot.

Thanks, 

Kurtis O.
Bellefontaine, Ohio

Melanistic and typical Massasauga, Photo by Greg Lipps.
    Kurtis notices something about rattlesnakes that we recently discussed in relation to an Alabama Timber Rattlesnake, they often rely on their camouflage to avoid conflict with people.

   But to the question at hand, these snakes are not typically melanistic (all black) but it is not unheard of either. I don't have a lot of firsthand experience with Massasauga populations, so I reached out to Greg Lipps, he replied:

"In some populations, melanistic Massasaugas appear to be quite common while in others they are rare or even nonexistent. For instance, at several sites in northern Ohio the percentage of this year's captures (75 total) that were melanistic ranged from 0 - 35%.

Interestingly, northwestern Ohio is also home to populations of melanistic Eastern Gartersnakes. Basically limited to the western basin of Lake Erie (from Sandusky to Toledo), melanistic individuals may make up to 50% of some populations. Research from Rich King's lab supports the theory that being all black is beneficial from a thermoregulatory standpoint, but the loss of stripes or bands has a cost in terms of increased predation risk. This apparently leads to a balancing selection."

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