More on Lake Erie’s algae blooms, the Toledo water crisis and looming urban sprawl: this week in environmental news

Toledo Mayor Michael Collins drinks tap water in front of the community after the ban was lifted. Photo by Karen Schaefer courtesy of the Great Lakes Echo.

Toledo Mayor Michael Collins drinks tap water in front of the community after the ban was lifted. Photo by Karen Schaefer courtesy of the Great Lakes Echo.

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA gathers news related to the environment from around the state and country. Here are a few highlights from what happened this week in environmental news:

Toledo water crisis passes but long term threat looms (Great Lakes Echo): Despite the scare and being unable to drink water, residents still found themselves apprehensive to drink Toledo tap water — despite Mayor Michael Collins drinking the water in front of them. Although there is no longer a ban on drinking the water, a larger problem prevails not only in northern Ohio communities but those along the Great Lakes Basin.

NASA satellite view of Lake Erie.

NASA satellite view of Lake Erie.

Behind Toledo’s water crisis: A long troubled Lake Erie (New York Times): Like the MNA post this past week about Lake Erie and damage of algal blooms, Michael Wines of the New York Times offers an in-depth look into the problem. The story tracks down the past of Lake Erie and discusses the trouble its faced in the past and how now scientists and government officials are taking serious concern to the issue due to the recent water crisis in Toledo.

6 Ways Nature is Inspiring Human Engineering (Forbes): Biomimetics, or the imitation of nature for the purpose of solving human problems, has led to new breakthroughs in technology. Researchers are looking at the eyes of moths to understand how their structure can be applied to solar technology as well as using spider silk for bulletproof vests.

Just how far will urban sprawl spread? (Conservation Magazine): The World Health Organization has predicted by 2050, 70 percent of the global population will reside in cities. This will inevitably increase urban sprawl — an issue that affects natural habitats and ecosystems worldwide.


Species Spotlight: The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA Intern

Michigan’s sole rattlesnake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, is a rare sight to see for residents of the Lower Peninsula. When compared to other rattlesnakes found throughout the United States, the Massasauga is the smallest and has the least toxic venom. These snakes are known as pit vipers, which means they are equipped with heat-sensing organs between their eyes and nose on either side of the head that serves as a set of infrared eyes that operate separately from the eyes and nose that allows the animal to see heat.

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Historically, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake could be found in a variety of wetlands and upland woods all throughout the Lower Peninsula. They are becoming more rare in many areas they used to inhabit due to wetland loss and human interference. This species is listed in Michigan as a “species of special concern” and state law protects them.

People have come up with many misconceptions about snakes and often think they attack and bite if they are disturbed. Like many other species of snake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is a very shy and sluggish reptile. They prefer to avoid confrontation with humans and are not prone to striking unless heavily provoked.  These reptiles have a thick body and a slender head and neck. They are painted with dark brown rectangular patches that are offset by light brown or grey background tones. Adults can reach between two and three feet in length.  Young baby snakes do not have rattles, but they have a single “button” on their tails, with a new segment added to their forming rattle after each shedding of their skin which happens several times per year. This snake is unique because they are the only species of snake with elliptical vertical pupils in their eyes, like a cat’s eye.

During the spring, the Massasaugas use open shallow wetlands and shrub swamps to thrive in. During the summer, they move upland to drier areas and can be found sunning themselves in open fields and grassy meadows. Populations of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake are typically found in prairie fens because they utilize the diversity of the fens and the unique habitats they provide. They use the land to forage, bask and conceive young.

Many sanctuaries protected by the Michigan Nature Association also protect the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, typically sanctuaries containing a prairie fen. MNA works hard to protect and restore the fens to benefit species that rely specifically on them. To find ways to get involved, visit


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.