Chesterton Tribune

A rattling good find: The eastern massasauga is not extinct

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By KEVIN NEVERS

Bitten on the hand by a rattlesnake while cutting weeds in Indiana Dunes State Park, George Marietta, a CCC man in the State Park company, is recovering today at Fort Benjamin Harrison Hospital, Indianapolis.

So the Chesterton Tribune reported on the front page of its Oct. 4, 1934, edition, under the headline “Rattlesnake Bites CCC Boy.” Although the story never identifies the particular species of the perpetrator, it really didn’t have to. Only one rattlesnake, indeed only one venomous snake, is indigenous to Northwest Indiana: Sistrurus catenatus catenatus, the eastern massasauga.

It was George Marietta’s bad luck, that day 68 years ago, to stumble upon a massasauga and his worse luck to stumble upon one in the mood to strike. But a hiker would have to have almost unbelievably good luck to catch sight of a massasauga today. In fact, for the better part of a decade there’s been no authenticated sighting of a live massasauga in Duneland and for all anyone knew the last living member of the last viable population had long since died.

For all anyone knew, that is, until Sept. 24, when a biotechnician at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore reached his hand into a funnel trap and found an adolescent massasauga inside. Eric Garza, who works for the U.S. Geological Survey at the Lake Michigan Ecological Research Station, was not bitten. He was, however, thrilled.

The snake—an unsexed massasauga about 10 inches in length and probably born in the summer of 2001—is the improbable fruit of an ongoing study funded by the National Park Service, in which Garza and fellow biotechnicians Gary Glowacki and David Beamer have been assisting in an ambitious inventory of the vertebrates of the National Lakeshore. Six months ago they began actively seeking massasaugas, though without much confidence in the likelihood of finding one. The rattlers were either that rare in Duneland, or that extinct.

For Ralph Grundel, a scientist with the USGS and a coordinator of the study, finding a live massasauga is almost like finding a live dodo. “We’re excited about this,” he says, “because it’s an indication that a part of our natural heritage in this area is still hanging on when we were fearful that it became extinct.”

Marietta was cutting weeds with a scythe in a swamp last Thursday. The scythe stuck and when he put down his hand to loosen it the rattler struck without warning. He was given first aid and then taken to the government hospital for more careful treatment.

Massasaugas are smallish in size, adult specimens averaging only around two feet in length. They have stout bodies handsomely camouflaged by dark-edged chocolate blotches on a gray or yellow background. Their range extends from New York and Pennsylvania in the East to Iowa and Missouri in the Midwest to Wisconsin and Indiana—but only the northern half of Indiana—around the Great Lakes. Massasaugas live almost exclusively on mice.

The jury is out on their personality. One of the foremost herpetologists in the world before his death and a Hoosier who wrote the book on Indiana reptiles, Sherman Minton Jr., found massasaugas to be “bad-tempered.” But others, like Grundel, describe them as lethargic and phlegmatic. “They’re actually a fairly unaggressive species,” he says. “They’re not the type of snake that’s going to sense you from far away and come after you. Only if it’s cornered and threatened will it strike.”

The peril, in any event, is largely moot. A person stands a better chance of dying from anaphylactic shock after being stung by a wasp than, in 20 years of bushwhacking the dunes, of even seeing a massasauga. Nevertheless, before Grundel sent his biotechnicians into the field in search of one, he talked to Porter Memorial Hospital about its stock of anti-venom. Most hospitals keep a quantity of it nowadays to treat careless snake owners. PMH is one of them.

The swamps north of here have been the natural home of rattlesnakes for years. When the Public Service company put through their so-called “high line” a few years back there were many rattlesnakes killed by the construction crew. They do not get out of the swamps, as a rule, and they do not strike at people unless they are disturbed.

Massasaugas were once common in Duneland, Grundel says. They’re partial to the sort of wet meadow which used to be prevalent in the region and like to make their homes in crayfish burrows just above the water table. Drainage and development, though—in combination with hunting—reduced their numbers decades ago to barely sustainable levels, and the massasauga is now a candidate for federal listing as an endangered species. Grundel is acquainted with only three authenticated sightings of a live massasauga since 1990. NPS personnel in the field do occasionally report hearing the sound of a rattle, he notes, but they’re more likely hearing the sound instead of some non-venomous snake shaking its tail in a leaf pile, in mimicry of the rattlesnake’s warning signal.

Right now in Duneland the massasauga population probably numbers no more than “a few dozen,” Grundel says. “All we know for sure is that in 2001 there were at least one adult male and one adult female,” the parents of the adolescent who slithered into Garza’s funnel trap.

A day after capturing it, Garza released it back into the park, but not before a score or two of his colleagues at the National Lakeshore had trooped into his office for a peek at his prize.

Henry Greening was telling yesterday of the rattlesnake hunt at Burdick about forty years ago, when a swamp less than an acre in size was set afire, after furrows had been plowed around it. Over forty rattlesnakes were killed, and many escaped or were roasted in the flames.

Garza’s massasauga is a little like the canary in the coal mine: an exceedingly sensitive and vulnerable species whose mere existence in Duneland is a sign of a still robust ecosystem. “From the view point of pride in our home,” Grundel says, “it’s important to maintain populations of our native species. The presence of the massasauga is an indication of our doing something right, just as the disappearance of a species is an indication of our doing something wrong. The fact that we can find the massasauga indicates that we’ve preserved part of our past. It’s important for people to be on the side of the massasauga.”

But the massasauga is also like the grizzly or the cougar: an animal whose threat to humans, real or perceived, once upon a time stirred our ancestors’ imagination, and in stirring ours—if we let it—returns us to a time when the world’s edges were a little rougher. “Obviously many people have a fear of snakes of biblical proportions,” Grundel says. “It’s understandable. But the fact that we still have a species like the massasauga still hanging on in a national park is evidence of a degree of pristineness that it would be good for Northwest Indiana to have. It’s really a link to a wilder time.”

 

Posted 11/11/2002