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Rattling Support for the Eastern Massasauga
Photo Credit: USFWS
Three years of research, more than $60,000 in funding, and continual habitat manipulation is the secret to resurrecting a degraded swamp in New York into basking habitat for one of the state's slithering residents.
The eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus) is listed as endangered by the state of New York and is a candidate for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. In the meantime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues working to recover the species.
The massasauga lives in wet areas made of peat layers from years of decomposing plants. The layers hold water like a sponge, with new plants growing on each layer. Just two swamps in the Empire State support the species, but one has been so severely degraded that few massasaugas can actually survive there.
Over the years, the swamps have been ditched, drained, and burned, significantly affecting the snake's habitat. One of these swamps burned in 1892 during an intense wildfire and gradually converted to woody shrubs and mature trees. Gravid (pregnant) female massasaugas could no longer use it, as they need an open canopy that allows them to bask and maintain a high body temperature for their developing young.
To return the swamp to functional basking habitat, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has cut, burned, and applied herbicides to suppress the growth of tall vegetation and create an open tree canopy. With grant funds awarded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2011, the DEC has removed shrubs on 32 plots totally just under one acre, thinned an additional 2.5 acres, and clear-cut 10 acres.
In 2012, DEC removed shrubs to create 16 additional plots. An additional hectare of new cuts was completed in the winter of 2013. Since habitat manipulations are temporary – lasting about 10 years – they must be managed every few years to provide optimal basking habitat.
DEC has also used the grant to support students from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry that monitored and tagged massasauga populations in restored habitat from 2010 to 2012. Students recorded greater use by massasaugas in the manipulated plots compared to the uncut areas—an encouraging sign that restoration work in the swamp is benefitting the species.
In 2013, the DEC counted a record of 50 gravid females in the manipulated plots, and 11 different broods (a group of young) totaling 64 newborn massasaugas. The DEC will continue to maintain about one hectare of habitat – capable of supporting around 100 gravid females – and monitor the population once a week. This collaborative effort provides renewed hope that the status of the eastern massasauga will steadily improve.
Bethany Holbrook, an outreach coordinator in the Service's New York Ecological Services Field Office, can be reached at email@example.com.
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