Species Spotlight: Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

By Michelle Ferrell, MNA Intern

Inspiring both our fear and fascination, snakes have long been subjects of lore and objects of persecution, and more recently, household adornments for reptile enthusiasts. Less appreciated about these legless creatures is the ecological role they play as middle-order predators. They serve as a food source for other wildlife, but also help to control small mammal populations – chiefly that of rodents. As such they act as indicator species, which from an ecological standpoint means their conservation also entails the conservation of entire natural systems which support an array of plants and animals.

rattlesnake

The threatened Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake. Photo: Ryan Bolton.

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, sometimes called the Michigan Rattlesnake, Prairie Massasauga, or Swamp Massasauga, is one of several Michigan-native snakes, but is Michigan’s only venomous snake. Still, it poses little to no threat to humans. This timid species is extremely reclusive and avoids humans as best it can, preferring to remain camouflaged or leave the area when disturbed. Despite a somewhat fearsome reputation, rattlesnakes strike in defense only as a last resort.

Grown adults are of modest proportions, reaching only 2-3 feet in length. They are characterized by a light grey or tan base color with rows of large, dark brown circles and the hallmark triangular or heart-shaped head. The young are paler, but no less brightly-patterned. It ranges throughout the entire lower peninsula in swamps and wet lowlands. Occasionally it can also be found sunning in drier uplands.

Like many others of its kind, this once-common species has been driven to decline largely due to the loss of wetland habitats from urban and agricultural development, needless persecution and snake fungal disease, and is now classified as threatened or endangered in every state across its American range spanning from Pennsylvania to Missouri and Minnesota. MNA is a key stakeholder in the conservation of the Eastern Massasauga and currently protects several Eastern Massasauga habitats in Oakland, Berrien, Van Buren and Mackinac counties.

Education and awareness can play an important role in the future of this species. If trekking through areas of possible rattlesnake habitation, be sure to wear thick shoes and pants or socks that reach past your ankles. Though sightings are rare, if you see a snake which you suspect to be a rattler, keep a respectful distance and restrain pets to prevent them from agitating the snake. Much has yet to be learned about these reclusive creatures, but perhaps with a trained eye, visitors to MNA sanctuaries can observe them in their natural element.

5K to Benefit Rare Species

Rattlesnake Run at the Paint Creek Trail in Oakland County! Photo: Yoshi Naruse.

MNA also educates the public about the species at the Annual Rattlesnake Family Fun Run & 5K in Rochester. This year the race will take place on Sunday, September 17 along the Paint Creek Trail. The 5K will promote efforts to preserve habitat for the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake.

You’re Invited!

The Michigan Nature Association
invites you to

Foreshadowing
Endangered and Threatened Plant Species

Jane Kramer artwork

Visit Jane Kramer’s art exhibit to see her collection: images of Michigan’s endangered and threatened plants that are transferred onto handmade paper crafted from the invasive plants that threaten them.

Please join us:

Friday, January 8, 2016

Artist Talk
5:30 p.m.

Reception
6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

Lansing Art Gallery
119 N Washington Square, Suite 101
Lansing, MI 48933

Learn more on the Facebook Event Page

ENDANGERED!

Photo by Susan R. Crispin, Michigan Natural Feature Inventory

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 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.

Wild Lilac
By Angie Jackson

Lilacs, known for their sweet and elegant aroma, are one of the most common garden shrubs in the country. Wild lilac (Ceanothus sanguineu) is a threatened species in Michigan that occurs in the Keweenaw Peninsula.

As a nitrogen-fixing shrub, wild lilac supports the growth and health of other plants. It is also an important browse species for animals such as white-tailed deer, mule deer and Rocky Mountain elk.

Physical Appearance:
Wild lilac is a perennial shrub with red or purple stems and white flowers. Its leaves are 4-7 cm long, oval shaped and green. Leaves are alternatively arranged, and sometimes the undersides are hairy. Lilacs will grow up to three meters tall in small bush arrangements, with clusters of flowers growing up to 12 cm long.

Preferred Habitat:
In Michigan, wild lilac prefers volcanic cliffs and volcanic conglomerate ridgetops characterized by scattered, shrubby tree areas, such as the northern Keweenaw Peninsula. In the western United States, wild lilac grows in canopy gaps, in mixed conifer forests and on slopes. It thrives in sunlight and hot, dry climates.

Life Cycle:
Wild lilacs flower in late May and June, and fruit in July. Seeds are covered with a water-resistant coat that only opens with exposure to heat. Fire, logging and other occurrences that expose the seeds to heat lead to rapid germination. Following this process, growth is rapid, but individual wild lilacs have relatively short life spans of 5-10 years.

Like other shrubs in the Ceanothus family, wild lilacs fix nitrogen through a symbiotic process with the bacteria of the genus Frankia. This process enhances the growth of nearby plants, restores soil and aids the repair of unhealthy land. Researchers say some forest ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest may rely on wild lilac as a main source of nitrogen input.

List Status:
Wild lilac populations are secure in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana. However, it is a threatened species in Michigan, with only five occurrences in Keweenaw County. Most Michigan occurrences have been near roads, making wild lilac populations in danger of road development and pesticides. Road use and foot traffic have also established the presence of several invasive plants such as Canada bluegrass and spotted knapweed in the shrub’s habitat, potentially inhibiting its survival.

Protection Efforts:
Currently, there is not a state-wide protection program in place for wild lilac. However, research suggests that controlled burns would help manage the plant and its habitat. Because wild lilac seeds require heat to open, fire would aid in spreading seeds and removing canopy-covering plants to provide sunlight.

At MNA, staff conduct routine controlled burns to manage natural areas and promote habitat health and diversity. Burns remove gaps from the forest canopy, allowing for the conservation of rare and endangered species such as wild lilac.

How You Can Help:
Help promote healthy natural communities by joining the MNA burn crew. Controlled burns are led by trained professionals who redo their training each year. During the training process, new MNA burn crew members are taught to handle the equipment, as well as methods for controlling fire like creating fire breaks and backfires. To learn more about prescribed burns, contact MNA Stewardship Coordinator Andrew Bacon by emailing abacon@michigannature.org or calling (517) 655-5655.

MNA volunteers are currently working to protect this and other endangered 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.