Massasauga Rattler

Massassauga Rattler

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7:06 min.

Summary

It's pretty much human nature to be afraid of poisonous snakes. That's why naturalists fight an uphill battle when they try to protect a species like the Massasauga rattler. Right now most of the fear associated with this snake is the fear that the population in Central Canada will die out forever. Now a team is working hard to make sure that the tell tale sound of the rattlesnake will not be silenced.

Transcript of Video

Jill Deacon
But first, it's pretty much human nature to be afraid of poisonous snakes. That's why naturalists fight an uphill battle when they try to protect a species like the Massasauga rattler. Right now most of the fear associated with this snake is the fear that the population in Central Canada will die out forever. Now a team is working hard to make sure that the tell tale sound of the rattlesnake will not be silenced.

Jay Ingram
The Massasauga Rattlesnake sounds a warning. You're entering 'snake country,' even though there's not much of that left.

Maligned, mistreated, and thoroughly misunderstood, the Eastern Massasauga rattler is Ontario's only venomous snake.

Dr. Kent Prior
They're incredibly beautiful... It's a treasure to be able to see one of these things in the wild... and the venom that they have is an extreme... extremely beautiful adaptation to prey gathering. They use the venom to subdue prey (small mammals principally), and the threat that they pose to human health and safety is really minimal if there's an awareness and an education.

Jay Ingram
But this is the Massasauga's last stand.

At one time it was found right across Ontario. But wetlands were drained, towns and roads were built... and its habitat destroyed.

Today all that remain are four isolated populations:

The Ojibway Nature Reserve in the city of Windsor

The Wainfleet Marsh, in the Niagara Region

The Bruce Peninsula

And the eastern shores of Georgian Bay.

Since 1991, the Massasauga has been listed as a threatened species.

Dr. Kent Prior
What we have are really remnants of a historic heritage that is worth hanging on to. If we lose them, we can't retrieve them.

Jay Ingram
But as the Massasauga has lost ground, it's won a few friends. A group of biologists and conservationists formed a partnership... the Eastern Massasauga Recovery Team.

Together they study the snake, monitor its behavior, and help ease relations with it's human neighbors... all in an effort to preserve its dwindling numbers. But the Massasauga presents plenty of challenges to a researcher.

Take habitat, for example. Within Ontario you can find the snake living in a peat bog, tall grass prairie, or forest ecosystem.

And even if you find the Massasauga's home, there's no telling exactly how many snakes actually live there.

Dr. Kent Prior
Population ecology on snakes is particularly difficult because they're really hard to find. They're very cryptic...this species in particular. They're very hard to count and census.

Jay Ingram
The smallest population numbers less than one-hundred... The largest... perhaps in the thousands.

In Killbear Provincial Park, on Georgian Bay, researchers from Carleton University track snakes that have been implanted with radio transmitters.

They've discovered the Massasauga is a "home-body"... It spends its life in a range of one to two kilometres... where it is familiar with terrain, food resources, and hibernation sites.

When a snake is "relocated," it usually dies in unfamiliar surroundings.

As a result... today in Killbear Park when snake and camper meet... the snake stays... the human learns to adapt... to leave the snakes undisturbed... and wear shoes while walking in the woods.

But if the snakes don't roam... how are the individual populations related?

The short answer is... they're NOT!

Staff at the Toronto Zoo are keen members of the Massasauga Recovery Team. Here, they're taking a blood sample from one of the Zoo's resident Massasaugas.

Similar samples have been obtained from wild snakes found in Ontario, Ohio, and New York State.

DNA was extracted, and analyzed for telltale markers that indicate genetic relationships between populations.

They found no evidence of inter-breeding in snakes living more than 50 kilometres apart. That, in itself, wasn't surprising...

But they also found the same incredibly high genetic divergence between populations that lived almost side by side.

Dr. Kent Prior
Perhaps most surprising, however, is that we've got genetic differences among populations that are on the order of five to 10 kilometres apart. Populations in which there is suitable habitat in between... snakes in between... and which we had presumed them to be a contiguous genetic unit. In fact, there seems to be a great deal of genetic structure... genetic differentiation between these snakes at a very fine geographic scale.

Jay Ingram
Differences between Massasaugas over a 50 kilometre area were comparable to those found in bird populations on a continent-wide basis.

And that gave researchers hope. It meant the snake may be pre-adapted to living in semi-isolated groups, with very limited gene flow between them.

Human influence may not have changed the snake's genetic structure... And so... with the proper conservation plan, the species could survive.

Dr. Kent Prior
We shouldn't be moving snakes around if in fact we're trying to preserve genetic diversity... because mixing them up is not what they do naturally... and by moving animals around we would be sort of confounding, or diluting the genetic structure that is there naturally.

Jay Ingram
To conserve the snakes, the Recovery Team may have to micro-manage the populations on a local, rather than regional basis.

They're still trying to map the fine-scale, genetic and geographic details across this animal's range.

And public education is crucial. After all, this is a snake with an undeserved, but deadly reputation... (although it rarely puts the bite on humans).

The ability of humans to live with the Massasauga will ultimately decide the snake's fate. Genetic research suggests they have the tools to survive... but their very isolation makes them that much more vulnerable.

Dr. Kent Prior
A catastrophic event... a grass fire in Ojibway... could wipe out the entire population just like that...with or without any genetic diversity. But this genetic information ... we can apply to... to recovery strategies for this species... So we're quite hopeful that in fact we will... we will have Massasaugas around for many hundreds of years to come.

Super
This story was produced with the assistance of Environment Canada.