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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

Long-term Research on Rattlesnake Life History Will Help Managers Plan Habitat Restoration

Region 3, August 7, 2012
Northern Illinois University doctoral student Eric Hileman (left) and Fish & Wildlife Biologist Mike Redmer (right) search for eastern massasaugas at the Edward Lowe Foundation's Big Rock Valley, July 2012.
Northern Illinois University doctoral student Eric Hileman (left) and Fish & Wildlife Biologist Mike Redmer (right) search for eastern massasaugas at the Edward Lowe Foundation's Big Rock Valley, July 2012. - Photo Credit: n/a
In the ecology lab at the Edward Lowe Foundation, members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums
In the ecology lab at the Edward Lowe Foundation, members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums "Eastern Massasauga Species Survival Plan" draw blood and gather other data from safely restrained massasaugas before the smakes are released back into the wild. - Photo Credit: n/a

Funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is supporting the work of Dr. Richard King, Northern Illinois University, in a doctoral-level study of massasauga demography and thermal biology/hibernation. Understanding hibernation patterns is important because knowing when massasaugas emerge from hibernation, and how they bask to regulate body temperature, can help in planning crucial habitat management activities (e.g., prescribed fire) that can cause mortality to massasauga populations.The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chicago Illinois Field Office works closely with the Edward Lowe Foundation, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and Northern Illinois University to ensure the continuation of a long-term research project on the eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus) in southwest Michigan.

The eastern massasauga is a candidate for listing as a federally threatened or endangered species, and is a high priority for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which formed the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan in 2007. Shortly after forming, the SSP approached the Edward Lowe Foundation about the possibility of holding an annual SSP business meeting and starting a field monitoring project of wild massasaugas found on the foundation’s 2600-acre site in southwest Michigan. The foundation’s namesake, Edward Lowe, was best known for patenting absorbent Kitty Litter in the 1940s and later for being an outspoken advocate of entrepreneurism. In addition to providing a center to support entrepreneurial spirit, the Edward Lowe Foundation’s mission includes a commitment to provide state of the art natural resource stewardship on its property, known as Big Rock Valley.

The demographic characteristics of few massasauga populations have been profiled, and understanding massasauga population dynamics was important to zoos. So, less than one year after discussions began, and with staff from several member zoos in attendance, the SSP held their first meeting and initiated the massasauga field project at Big Rock Valley. The week-long meetings were timed to coincide with massasauga emergence or “egress” from hibernation so that a large proportion of the population could be captured, marked and released for future identification.

Service Biologist Mike Redmer, from the Chicago Illinois Field Office serves as an invited advisor to the SSP, and in the initial years, Mike worked closely with Dr. Lisa Faust (Vice President of Conservation and Science at Lincoln Park Zoo) to design a study protocol to be implemented during the one-week annual SSP field project. Now, in addition to the concerted effort of the SSP members each spring, a full-time doctoral student, Eric Hileman, and a field assistant have been on site gathering data during longer, uninterrupted portions of the massasaugas’ active season since mid-2010.

Contact Info: Michael Redmer, 847-381-2253, Mike_Redmer@fws.gov