ENDANGERED!

At MNA, our Mission is to protect special natural areas and the rare species that live there. The goals of our blog are to cover the latest environmental issues affecting these areas and provide information about the efforts of our volunteers. Our weekly “ENDANGERED!” column serves to inform you about the endangered and threatened plant and animal species found in and around these special natural areas, and how you can contribute to conservation efforts before it is too late.

Eastern Massasauaga Rattlesnake
By Yang Zhang

The Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus), also known as the Massasauga Rattler, Black Massasauga Rattler, Michigan Rattler and Swamp Rattler, is Michigan’s only venomous snake.

A species of special concern in Michigan, the rattlesnake plays an important role in the ecosystem. They eat voles, mice and other rodents and help keep their populations in check. They are also part of a larger food web, serving as prey for eagles, herons and some mammals.

Photo credit: Nick Scobel

Physical Appearance:
Adult rattlesnakes are stout-bodied with broad, triangular heads and vertical pupils. Some measure 18-to-40 inches in length, with the average being 27.5 inches. The Eastern Massasauga’s back is marked with a row of large, black or dark brown hourglass-shaped blotches with three rows of smaller dark spots on its sides. A dark bar with a lighter border extends from its eyes to the rear of the jaw. Some adults, however, are all black.

Young rattlesnakes have small, yellow buttons, or rattles, at the tip of their tails. Adult rattles are grayish yellow, like pieces of corn kernels on top of dark rings. It is formed from loosely attached, hard, horny segments. A new segment is added each time the snake sheds.

Though its bite is not necessarily fatal to humans, the rattlesnake kills prey by releasing toxic venom. Rattlesnakes can even control how much venom is released when biting, and sometimes snake bites are dry bites, meaning that venom was not released.

Preferred Habitat:
Derived from the Chippewa language, “massasauga” (pronounced mass-a-saw’-ga) translates to “great river mouth” and refers to the snake’s preference for wet habitats.

In the cold wintertime, they hibernate in open shallow wetlands or shrub swamps. Massasauga rattlesnakes can be found in crayfish chimneys or small animal burrows, which are adjacent to drier upland shrub forests. In the late spring, massasaugas move upland to drier areas where they can find mice and voles, their favorite foods. You will most often find them “sunning” in open fields, grassy meadows or farmed sites.

In Michigan, the rattlesnakes only live in the Lower Peninsula. You may spot them at MNA’s Butternut Creek Nature Sanctuary, Big Valley Nature Sanctuary and Lambs Fairbanks Nature Haven.

Life Cycle:
An Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake can live 14 years, but nearly half of its life is spent in hibernation.

They hibernate during winter in burrows in moist lowland areas and emerge from winter dormancy in mid-April. In early October, they migrate back to hibernating areas, in some cases traveling more than 1.5 miles.

Female rattlers give birth to 8-to-20 live snakes in late summer instead of laying eggs. The breeding season usually occurs during May or June, but mating can occur almost any time from late April until September. It takes a young rattlesnake three-to-four years to become sexually mature.

List Status:
Historically, rattlesnakes were found in a variety of wetlands and nearby upland woods throughout the state’s Lower Peninsula. They are becoming rare due to loss of wetland habitat to development and agriculture and unregulated hunting and snake collection by humans. The massasauga is listed as a species of special concern by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, and is protected by state law.


Protection Efforts:

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently evaluating the snake’s population in the Great Lakes region to determine if it should be listed as a threatened species.

Current efforts to protect the species include working with land managers to practice techniques that avoid harming the rattlesnake and its habitat.

How You Can Help:
Massasaugas, like many snakes, are mistakenly perceived as a threat to humans, and the first human reaction may be to kill them. However, these snakes are shy and sluggish in nature. They avoid confrontation with humans and are not prone to strike. When rattlesnakes feel disturbed, they vibrate their tails, making a distinct buzzing sound. If you encounter a snake, leave it alone. If pets are in the area, it is important to confine them until the snake moves on.

MNA volunteers are currently working to protect this and other endangered and threatened species, and you can help too. Join our efforts as a volunteer removing invasive plants in the special natural areas where this species lives. Or, become a steward and take responsibility for planning efforts to maintain a specific MNA sanctuary. To find out how to get involved, visit our website.

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Become An MNA Member

Are you passionate about the environment but aren’t sure how to help? Do you love Michigan and the beautiful natural areas found here? Do you think plant and animals species diversity should be protected? Then you should consider becoming an MNA member! An MNA member cares about the environment in Michigan, and wants to make a difference to protect special natural areas for future generations.

What Are the Benefits?
Once you become a member, you will:

• Be part of a 60-year-old conservation organization with a proven track record as an active land conservancy engaged in ongoing stewardship and acquisition programs.
• Know that you are making a difference in the protection of more than 10,000 acres of Michigan’s most special natural areas with a focus on rare species and habitats.
• Join an organization in which the members elect a Board of Trustees, who in-turn decide policy and practice for projects and initiatives at sanctuaries throughout the state.
• Gain access to the latest MNA updates and news through publications like the quarterly newsletter, as well as sanctuary guides, trail maps and road maps as they are updated.
• Find an easy connection to Michigan-specific environmental news and education pieces on our website and blog, as well as interesting and relevant in-depth features in our newsletter.
• Receive invitations to more than 100 events hosted by MNA each year, including educational activities and annual events like hikes, field trips, presentations and volunteer days as well the Adventure Series, Recognition Dinner and Members’ Meeting.

How Much Does It Cost?

• Individual Membership – $35 – This membership is best for individuals wishing to support MNA’s efforts. $30.00 per membership for two or more individual memberships
• Living Lightly – $20 – This membership option is intended for students, seniors and others with financial difficulty who would like to be a part of our work protecting Michigan’s natural places. A Living Lightly member is entitled to the same benefits as that of an individual/organization member
• Family Membership – $60 – The Family Membership is for two or more individuals who live together. All Family members are entitled to the same benefits as that of an individual/organization member
• Business Partner – $100 – This membership is ideal for businesses and organizations that wish to support the Mission and goals of MNA. The main contact nominated by the business or organization is entitled to the same benefits as that of an individual member


How Do I Join?

You can join MNA and begin supporting our efforts to protect special natural areas across the state by entering your information at our online store. You may also contact our office with credit card or check information by calling 517-655-5655.

When Should I Do It?

Right now. There’s no time like the present. Another animal species goes extinct every 20 minutes, and natural land is constantly being developed. Join us and help protect Michigan’s special natural areas and the species that inhabit there.

If you would like to find out more about becoming a member, join us at our annual member meeting Saturday, April 9, in Fenton. For more information, click here.

Animal Tracks to Spot in Winter

By Jake McCarthy

Many Michiganders hole up when the snow flies, barely going outside to shovel. Meanwhile, life goes on in the special natural areas throughout the state. A great thing about the fresh snow is that when we do venture outside, it can tell us a lot. Animal tracks, especially those left in fresh snow, can tell a story. They reveal that just because we do not spot many animals, doesn’t mean they are not nearby. There are countless species of animals that we might encounter in Michigan’s natural areas, but learning how to identify just a few of the most common tracks can reveal the secrets of the woods.

Eastern Cottontail

The Eastern cottontail rabbit is common throughout southern Michigan and leaves a distinctive track shape. Rabbits step with their front paws down first, and then their much longer hind feet in front of and outside the front paws. You’ll find cottontail tracks most commonly in brushy areas between woods and fields. In winter, when they’re roaming farther in search of food, you might see cottontail tracks just about anywhere.

Eastern cottontail

Grouse

Ruffed grouse have three-pronged feet, but because they take small steps, their tracks often appear as one long and narrow trail. If the grouse takes flight, the walking tracks may end at a point where they are flanked by two fan-shaped imprints from the bird’s flapping wings. You are likely to see these tracks throughout the Upper Peninsula and northern lower Michigan, especially in stands of young aspen and brushy areas.

Ruffed grouse

Deer

Probably the most common animal found track in Michigan snow is the whitetail deer. The most distinctive part of the tracks is the two halves of the hoof. Some people say the hoof track looks like an upside down heart, but the hoof may be splayed out a bit if the deer is especially large. Deer tracks may also have deer claws, small indentations behind the hooves.

Porcupine

Because of their effective defense mechanism, porcupines can afford to move slowly, which is evident in the tracks they leave in snow. The porcupine waddles through deep snow, leaving behind a winding trough. Porcupines eat leaves, twigs and buds and, in the winter, they love to eat the inner bark of trees. For this reason, the deep trough the porcupine makes as it plows through the snow often pauses at tree trunks that have been noticeably gnawed upon.

Porcupine

ENDANGERED!

At MNA, our Mission is to protect special natural areas and the rare species that live there. The goals of our blog are to cover the latest environmental issues affecting these areas and provide information about the efforts of our volunteers. Our weekly “ENDANGERED!” column serves to inform you about the endangered and threatened plant and animal species found in and around these special natural areas, and how you can contribute to conservation efforts before it is too late.

Dwarf Lake Iris

By Brandon Grenier

The second species to take the spotlight in our “ENDANGERED!” column is the Dwarf lake iris (Iris lacustris), a threatened and delicate flower found only along the shores of the Great Lakes. As an example of Michigan’s natural beauty, it is no surprise the iris has become a symbol of MNA’s efforts to protect and conserve special natural areas across the state. The iris is also Michigan’s official state wildflower. Learn more about this Midwest treasure to help save it before it is too late.

Physical Appearance:

The Dwarf lake iris is a small, low-growing plant with deep blue-violet flowers that are about two inches tall. The sepals are splashed with white signals surrounded by a deep blue color, making for a vibrant and showy flower. Its leaves are flattened, thin and grow up to six inches long. The leaves are also clustered, stiff and sword-like, and extend from creeping rhizomes.

Preferred Habitat:

The scientific name “lacustris” translates to “of lakes” and refers to where this rare species grows. Dwarf lake iris grows best along humid, semi-open shorelines in sand or thin, slightly acidic soil over limestone-rich rock. It can also be found on flat expanses behind open dunes. The plant prefers lightly shaded areas, but can also survive in full sunlight. Dwarf lake iris grows most successfully under white cedar, and patches of it can string along vast stretches of shoreline.

You can still find this rare flower at the Julius C. and Marie Moran Peter Memorial Sanctuary.

Life Cycle:

This perennial blooms in early May through July. It produces a few seeds, which are dispersed by ants. Fruiting occurs in late June through July. The best time to identify a patch of Dwarf lake iris is late May through early July.

List Status:

A naturalist first discovered Dwarf lake iris in 1810 in Mackinac Island in northern Lake Michigan. Today, the species’ natural habitat is diminishing.
Classified as a threatened species in 1988, Dwarf lake iris is losing its habitat to erosion, lakeshore development and agricultural chemicals. Northern Michigan, Wisconsin and a small portion of Canada are the only remaining natural hosts to this species, and it is disappearing there, too.

Having very specific growing conditions, Dwarf lake iris is a plant with a fragile habitat. New housing projects and outdoor recreation areas can disrupt a beachside populated by this rare flower. As beautiful as it may be, picking the iris can prevent it from reproducing. When its flowers are pulled out, the plant is often uprooted and is no longer able to produce seeds.

Protection Efforts:

The natural world supports us, thus, protecting this rare species could benefit us in the future. Scientists have discovered that closely related plants have similar chemical components. For example, the Yellow flag, an iris native to Europe, has been used as a source of black dye and ink.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is developing a recovery plan that identifies actions needed to help Dwarf lake iris survive. A variety of government and private conservation organizations are working to preserve the Dwarf lake iris and its natural habitat. Because many plants grow in private residential areas, voluntary protection agreements have also been made with some landowners.

How You Can Help:
If you choose to grow Dwarf lake iris, be sure to purchase it from a nursery and avoid digging up native plants from natural habitats. Removing the flower from the wild is both illegal and detrimental to its survival. Also, avoid using insecticides and chemicals on home gardens and lawns to keep water clean. If you come across a Dwarf lake iris in the wild, report it to your local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so the area can be better protected.

MNA volunteers are currently working to protect this and other endangered and threatened species, and you can help too. Join our efforts as a volunteer removing invasive plants in the special natural areas where this species lives. Or, become a steward and take responsibility for planning efforts to maintain a specific MNA sanctuary. To find out how to get involved, visit our website.