New research could help save an endangered Midwestern rattlesnake

Mar 17, 2017

Illinois scientists are studying an endangered species of rattlesnake to find ways to revive its numbers. 

The Eastern massasauga once was widespread in the Midwest, living mainly in the Great Lakes region. Over several decades, its population declined dramatically. The species lives in wetlands, many of which have been drained to to build farms. Northern Illinois University biologist Richard King said it's also the only venomous snake in its range, which has made it a target.

"There's been a history of persecution or even bounties on the snake in some states and some of those persisted into the 1970s," King said. 

King and his colleagues recently conducted a review of studies on the snake to better understand its life history. They found that showed that as average temperatures went up, the number of massasauga offspring went down. King said that it's possible to infer from the data that climate change could affect the species.

The researchers also discovered that the snake's body size also increased as rainfall increased, suggesting that the species does better in wetter climates.  

As a top predator, the Eastern massasauga plays an important role in the ecosystem. For example, it relies on a diet of rodents and keeps those animal populations in check. 

In Illinois, the only stable population of the Eastern massasauga is located at Lake Carlyle, about an hour from St. Louis. King said the reason is uncertain, but he has an idea.

"With the lake there and with management of the area for recreational use, the habitat that the snake uses has been protected, whereas in other parts of the state, the push for agricultural development has won out," he said.

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