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IN Press: Rattlesnake find evokes past, gives hope for futu

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Posted by W von Papinešu on November 17, 2002 at 18:18:29:

In Reply to: IL Press: The eastern massasauga is not extinct posted by W von Papinešu on November 13, 2002 at 08:42:28:

THE TIMES (Munster, Indiana) 17 November 02 Rattlesnake find evokes past, gives hope for future of native species (Brian Williams)
A surprising recent find will reinforce Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore's reputation for biodiversity.
A young massasauga rattlesnake, a species native to the region but rarely seen in the recent past, was found in the eastern part of the park in late September. The gray and brown spotted rattler was caught in a nonlethal trap set as part of a six-month study conducted by the United States Geological Survey.
Ralph Grundel, a research ecologist with the USGS who oversaw the project, declined to give the specific location of the find, saying reptiles are especially susceptible to poaching by collectors.
Grundel guessed that the small snake, measuring 10 inches and weighing less than 3 ounces, was born in summer 2001. Researchers did not determine its gender before releasing it the next morning at the same spot it was trapped.
Danger to the public from the venomous viper is practically nonexistent, according to park officials. Grundel said it is very unlikely visitors to the park will encounter a massasauga. The snakes are secretive and not aggressive, he said, "unless you get right on top of them and prod them. They are not going to attack from 10 feet away."
Park superintendent Dale Engquist noted that only one specimen was found after extensive searching. "I don't think humans should be concerned," he said, adding that the snake does not go onto beaches, where most park visitors head. "I don't think there's a conflict," he said.
There have been a number of reported sightings of sistrurus catenatus at the National Lakeshore in the past decade, Grundel said, but no way of knowing if they were accurate. The last verified sighting was three years ago. One road-killl snake in the early 1990s and one in the '70s also were identified as massasaugas.
"Basically, over the past 30 years, we've probably had a handful of sightings or specimens," Grundel said.
The snake is native to a swath from western New York to Texas. But it is doing "fairly poorly" throughout that stretch, Grundel said. He estimated that it no longer exists in half of the counties that make up its original range in this country.
Drainage of wetlands in the first third of the last century severely hurt the snake's habitat in this area. The snake, also known as the "swamp rattler" or "black snapper," prefers wet or damp meadows and tends to spend winter in the crayfish or rodent burrows close to the water table.
In the 1920s, there were many hundreds and maybe thousands of massasaugas in the area now comprising the park, Grundel estimated. "Now we're working with one tenth or one twentieth of that level," he said. He cautioned that those figures were just speculation. "We don't know the numbers," he admitted.
That lack of true knowledge about the serpent led to the recent study.
An inventory of vertebrate and plant populations in the national park system was funded in a recent federal initiative, but Indiana Dunes already had done such studies and instead applied to take a more specific look at the massasauga. The USGS was contracted by the National Park Service to conduct the study over one season. The $20,000 cost of the study went mostly toward salary for two part-time field researchers.
The search team mapped the snake's suspected habitat, then used three low-tech methods in what Grundel called a "needle in the haystack type of operation."
Research technicians Eric Garza and Gary Glowacki set traps made of rolls of window screen and a funnel to guide a snake into a screen cylinder. They also placed pieces of plywood on the ground that snakes in search of hiding or shelter might crawl under. And they also just looked in the most likely spots.
Garza and Glowacki checked the traps every day, but came up empty until near the end of the April-through-October study.
Finding a young snake was encouraging, Grundel said, because it indicates adults and a reproducing population in the area.
Because of the snake's size, the team decided not to give it a tracking tag, which would have required injecting a rice grain-size transponder into the snake with a hypodermic needle.
In spite of all the pointed searching, only the one snake was discovered, Engquist noted. But as a result of the find, ongoing habitat restoration in the park will perhaps be modified to ensure the rare species is protected, he added. "We're very pleased to have found the possibility of a viable population," he said.
As for safety concerns, Grundel counseled perspective.
"As far as your health goes, you probably run a bigger health risk by being sedentary in your house compared to being active and taking a hike in the dunes. The chances of encountering (a massasauga) are very, very, very small."

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