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There are times when the general public scratches its head, wondering why state and federal agencies spend time and money on the darndest research. That could have been the case last week when volunteers joined researcher Doug Wynn, and the Division of Wildlife's Kate Haley Parsons in a Massasauga rattlesnake roundup.
"Why protect a snake?" asked Wynn. "It's part of our heritage, but these days, people don't connect with that. It's not in their value system.
"(The Massasauga) is part of ecology. It's like the analogy of pulling a rivet out of jetliner. One or two is no problem, but pretty soon, you have a problem. You take too many species out of the system, and you can have an ecological collapse."
The average Ohioan doesn't even know the snake exits, what it looks like, where it lives and more importantly, why 55 people showed up at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in Wyandot County to look for the snake.
"The Massasauga plays an important role in the grassland ecosystem," said Parsons, the DOW's wildlife program administrator who deals with endangered species. "The Massasauga is important to the function of that habitat."
Ever since the smallest species of rattlesnake was put on the Federally Endangered list, states like Ohio went the extra mile to protect the few remaining Massasaugas that they had. In fact, the snake once roamed Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area, where manager Dennis Solon said the last one he saw at Killbuck was 30 years ago. Solon was one of the volunteers who joined the hunt last week at Killdeer Plains northwest of Marion with the hopes of seeing just one Massasauga.
To his surprise, Wynn, Parsons and the 53 others "rounded up" 24 Massasaugas.
"The best I've ever seen before was 10 in one day, and that was 15 years ago," said Wynn, an independent herpetologist who is hired by the Division of Wildlife to head up the Massasauga research. "The more people you have, the more (snakes) you're going to find. We had people from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Division of Wildlife. It was crazy, we were running out of snake bags."
Once a Massasauga was found, a GPS reading was taken of the spot and those coordinates were put on the bag, along with a flag in the ground. The snakes were then weighed and measured, a blood sample was taken, and a pit tag was inserted under its skin, so if it is captured again, researches can determine how well it has survived. The snakes were then released back where they were captured.
"We need to better understand how to conserve them," said Parsons. "Part of the study is marking individual snakes and recapturing them in subsequent years. We'll then be able to figure out if they were able to reproduce, were the young able to survive... we'll be able to answer how the population is doing."
One population of Massasaugas that is not doing well is the one that once roamed the Killbuck Valley. Wynn and the Division of Wildlife's Brian Banbury (former Ashland County Wildlife officer) teamed up with the staff at the Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area to determine if the snake still existed there. In fact, parts of the KMWA were off limits until it was determined that the Massasauga no longer slithers there.
"In two years at Killbuck, we couldn't find one, but to find 24 in one afternoon at Killdeer Plains is hope for the future," said Banbury, the DOW's District Three resident snake expert. "Killdeer Plains has the best population of Massasaugas left in Ohio."
One of the reasons most people know nothing about Massasauga rattlesnakes is the nature of the snake itself, and that's what makes it so interesting.
The snake is in the pygmy group of rattlesnakes, and rarely exceeds two feet in length. It's extremely docile and secretive.
"I've got 900 encounters with Massasaugas," said Wynn, "and only three times have they rattled. They just sit there and wait for you to walk on by."
The snake does have a rattle, but instead of making the typical rattle sound, it's rattle sounds more like the buzzing of a Cicada.
The snake, which gets it's name from an Indian word meaning great river mouth, rarely strikes, but its venom is poisonous.
"They're so small, there's not much venom to inject," said Banbury. "If you get bit, odds are, you're going to survive."
Maybe the most interesting part of the the Massasauga, though, is its relationship with the Chimney Crawfish, another of the characters that make up the grasslands ecosystem. In fact, the Massasauga can't survive without the Chimney Crawfish, and it has nothing to do with eating the crustacean for supper.
Chimney Crawfish are not found in rivers and lakes, but in areas with a high water table. They build tubes, or burrows, down in the ground, and live in the water that fills up the tunnel. They make a chimney above ground with the muck and mud they dig out to make their burrow.
It's those burrows that the Massasaugas live in to survive the winter, living just under the frost line, submerged in water.
"They need to find a place that's not freezing, has moisture and predators can't find them," said Wynn, noting why the tubes of Chimney Crawfish are the perfect over-wintering home. "A lot of factors come into play. The biology of these guys is really interesting."
Bottom line, said Banbury of why the Massasauga rattlesnake is so important, is conservation.
"Because it's something disappearing, because of habitat," he said. "It's a unique habitat the snake lives in, and it's important they exist just like anything else associated with that habitat."
Outdoor Editor Art Holden can be reached mornings at 330-287-1650, or at firstname.lastname@example.org