By Matt Stansberry, Illustrations by David Wilson
On a hot, wet morning in May, I jumped into a pickup truck with Brett Rodstrom, Vice President of Eastern Field Operations for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC), and headed into the Grand River Lowlands to look for Eastern Massasauga rattlesnakes.
The trip had been on my calendar for months – SWAMP RATTLERS written in red ink across the first week of May.
I had obsessed about it all winter, even double-checking that I’d paid my life insurance policy. Psychologists call this behavior “Catastrophic Thinking,” overestimating the likelihood of a worst-case outcome.
[blocktext align=”right”]…there are so few things left in Northeast Ohio that can kill us: seasonal depression, drunk driving, fried food. The snakes represent something more elegant, a gorgeous symbol of death’s detached, lurking presence.[/blocktext]Despite considering myself a naturalist, I have an irrational fear of snakes. The technical term is “ophidiophobia” – and I would place myself on the milder side of the continuum.
Despite my fear, I’m drawn to them for the danger and beauty they represent.
Many of us feel an attraction toward something dangerous. And there are so few things left in Northeast Ohio that can kill us: seasonal depression, drunk driving, fried food. The snakes represent something more elegant, a gorgeous symbol of death’s detached, lurking presence.
The venom of a Massasauga is more toxic than that of most other rattlesnakes, but the amount it injects can be relatively small compared to other rattlers. Fatalities from an Eastern Massasauga bite are extremely rare. There have been no known fatalities in the last 40 years, although there were several verified fatalities during the first part of the last century.
“The nearest Massasauga antivenom is in Pittsburgh,” Rodstrom said as we drove through the rural countryside east of Cleveland.
“You’re fucking with me, right?”
Nope. The treatment costs around $30,000 and the compounds in the antivenom kit only have a shelf life of 36 months. Most hospitals don’t keep them on hand.
Rodstrom could have mentioned that before I climbed into the truck.
* * *
The snakes need a wet field with a diversity of native grasses.
Wet prairies, sedge meadows, and early successional fields – historically, these habitats could be created by beavers, damming up a waterway, flooding a forest, creating an interruption in the tree canopy and leaving behind a soggy lowland after the beavers moved on.
Today the wet fields where these snakes live are especially hard to conserve. Agricultural development, vegetative succession, and the spread of invasive plant species – all of these activities add up to smaller and smaller patches of suitable habitat for the Massasauga.
In Ohio, the Eastern Massasauga is listed as an endangered species, and will likely receive federal listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act soon.
Historically, the species ranged throughout much of the glaciated portion of Ohio, but today there are only a handful of places where Massasaugas persist.
Compounding habitat sensitivity is human greed and stupidity.
[blocktext align=”right”]Compounding habitat sensitivity is human greed and stupidity.[/blocktext]“Massasaugas are highly prized by poachers,” Rodstrom said. “It’s these thirty-year-old weirdos living in their mom’s basements that want venomous snakes as pets. There is also a drug dealer culture that keeps rattlesnakes in their safes.”
The snake is truly a Rust Belt species – its habitat ranges across Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The Illinois Massasauga have been reduced to two populations. There are a handful of populations in Indiana, two or three populations in Pennsylvania. Michigan has always been the stronghold.
Ohio has at least 14 extant populations. Several of those populations had been discovered recently, within the decade in the Grand River Lowlands.
WRLC was one of the lucky winners of the rattlesnake lottery.
In March 2015 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded $750,000 to WRLC through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to purchase 1,000 acres of easements in northern Ohio’s Grand River Watershed – protecting five miles of streams and 400 acres of wetland.
Funding prioritization goes to the properties with the sensitive, endangered species.
“The snakes pay the bills, but there are all kinds of species that benefit,” Rodstrom said. “Salamanders, sandhill cranes, tons of plant species, spotted turtles, dragonflies and butterflies we don’t even know about yet. We find the snakes and leverage the funding to make it work.”
* * *
Massasauga are hard to find without a lot of corrugated steel and a snake whisperer.
Rodstrom grew up in Painesville and spent his whole life on the Grand River. He spent several years looking specifically for Eastern Massasauga on WRLC’s properties. But he had never seen one in the wild until he hooked up with Greg Lipps, Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Coordinator at the Ohio Biodiversity Conservation Partnership at Ohio State University. Lipps is a biologist, former zoo keeper, and reptile savant.
“We scoured this property for Massasauga for four years, but didn’t find them until we partnered up with Greg and started doing the tins.”
At various high-percentage Massasauga locations, Lipps had set out dozens of sheets of corrugated steel, or tins. The idea is that the metal heats up in the sun, warming up before the surrounding landscape, and also provides cover, attracting and concentrating snakes, making them easier to find.
We met Lipps at the first site for our survey, and I immediately requested the knee-high Kevlar snake guards he’d promised. I strapped in as he attempted to calm my nerves.
“Michigan, the state with the most Massasaugas, reports an average of one to two bites a year,” Lipps said. “The other states in which Massasaugas live each report only a few bites a decade. A large portion of the bites that do occur are the result of someone intentionally handling or harassing a Massasauga or someone stepping on one.”
The phrase “stepping on one” seemed to echo in my mind as we walked out into the field.
We approached the first tin, and I clenched my body as Lipps gripped the edge of the corrugated steel sheet with a long-handled duck-billed grabber. Nothing. Or at least, not much: dead grass and tunnels. Lots of muddy tunnels.
One of the odder symbiotic relationships is with terrestrial crayfish – land lobsters, mudbugs. I had never seen or heard of terrestrial crayfish, but these wet fields are full of crawdads.
The snakes overwinter in the crayfish burrows, which are chimney-shaped tunnels, slightly larger than a golf ball in diameter.
I wondered.“Terrestrial crayfish create burrows in high water table soils. You’ve see the little mud volcanos – that’s where the snakes hibernate,” Lipps said. “They go under the groundwater table and survive the winter.”
[blocktext align=”left”]As a father of three, the youngest not even a year old, should I be out here?[/blocktext]At the next tin, we spotted another species that the Massasauga needs to thrive – eastern meadow voles. About a dozen little fur tubes shot off in every direction when we flipped the tin, sooty, short-tailed hamster-looking critters.
“Massasaugas eat shrews, mice, and even other snakes and frogs. But one of the Massasauga’s primary food items is the meadow vole,” Rodstrom said. “You basically develop habitat for the meadow vole to support the snakes. Invasive sedges and grasses are a huge problem for rattlers. If you get a monoculture of invasive species, you can’t support a diversity and abundance of prey items. And then you don’t have snakes.”
Careful mowing schedules and invasive species removal are key activities to keep phragmites, reed canary grass, glossy buckthorn, and honeysuckle from taking over this old field habitat. It’s also important to thwart the natural succession of a field into a forest.
Agricultural subsidies also are hurting snake populations, as farmers are incentivized to keep unproductive land in production.
“Lands that would normally be left in a natural state get plowed because the land owner needs the tax breaks. It drives landowners to destroy a lot of snake habitat. There is a lot of wet meadow habitat across the state that gets farmed for tax reasons,” Rodstrom said.
The Massasauga is a highly sedentary species. They don’t move very far. They can’t go somewhere else.
“The problem is that they think they can use their rattle and their camouflage against a plow and they get smoked,” Rodstrom said.
* * *
The day wore on and the sun burned off the morning clouds. I started to regret the extra coffee I drank on the drive out. The sour bile rolled in my guts, as I stalked through the steaming, spongy field, staring straight at my feet.
I knew at some point soon I would have to break off from following directly behind the group to go piss, and I would inevitably be bitten and die with my fly down.
As a father of three, the youngest not even a year old, should I be out here? I wondered.
Lipps and Rodstrom flipped dozens of tins, and as we approached each one, it felt like Russian Roulette – eventually one of them would be loaded. When I described the process to my wife, she said the operation sounded like the gag with the novelty can of nuts, where a spring-coiled snake jumps out when you pop the lid. It felt like a recipe for a heart attack.
I’d been thinking about how my own fear of snakes had developed – how much experience had shaped my snake-psyche versus genetics.
In my late teens, I’d worked for a pet store in Akron. I was obsessed with lizards, snakes, fish tanks. I made minimum wage and spent nearly all of it to create and maintain an ecosystem in my bedroom that would have terrified my mother had she really investigated what I’d brought into her home.
This is why you should send your kids away to college.
One day while I was working at the pet shop, the local police had dropped off a coffin-sized plastic storage tub, the kind with the hinged lid that opens in the middle. Some asshole at a Fourth of July fireworks show had brought a gigantic Burmese Python to the crowded park, passed out drunk, and had lost or forgot the damn thing. Somehow the police had corralled the giant constrictor. Why the police would have decided to drop it off at a strip mall pet store, versus animal control or a zoo, is a question that still haunts me to this day.
[blocktext align=”left”]The typical profile of a snakebite victim is a drunk male in his 20s, bitten on his dominant hand (i.e. reaching for the snake).[/blocktext]As the resident reptile specialist, I had been tasked with addressing the snake in the box. When I popped open the lid, a giant white mouth shot out of the opening, a gaping maw the size of two size 12 shoes snapped shut inches from my face.
I fell backwards as the snake missed. That moment will forever be burned into my mind. Burmese Pythons over ten feet long are incredibly dangerous, and do kill people. The huge python had recoiled back into the plastic tub, and I grabbed a broom, flipping the lid closed. We taped it shut and called the cops to come pick the damn thing back up.
As a species, we are hardwired to fear snakes. Throughout millions of years of primate evolution, our ancestors faced off against giant constrictors and venomous serpents.
“Primate brain areas are specialized for vigilance and alarm connect with neural networks sensitive to elongate shapes and partially hidden, repetitive geometric patterns typical of snakes,” writes Harry Greene, herpetologist and Cornell University professor in the book Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art. “Naïve children pick out hidden snakes in photo arrays, suggestive of ancient inborn responses.”
My father hates snakes. I remember him telling me about the wandering Appalachian preachers who would visit his mother’s church when he was a kid, bearing serpents of the Pentecost. It scared the shit out of me, imagining some sweaty lunatic, speaking in tongues, waving around deadly snakes dangling from atrophied hands, missing fingers. Apparently the bible says to take up serpents, not that you won’t be bitten.
My great-grandfather was a true ophidiophobe. As a boy, I left my rubber snakes around his house for him to find, which would cause him to seize up in genuine terror.
Fear of snakes is common – about one third of adults have some serpent aversion. And unlike many irrational fears, this one seems to be legitimately earned.
Venomous snakes kill 100,000 people each year worldwide. Yet, only about ten people die annually from venomous snakebite in the United States.
Venomous serpents bite about 8,000 people in the U.S., but access to antivenom and hospitalization has dramatically improved our odds of survival.
Also, apparently the vast majority of snakebite victims in the U.S. deserved it.
The typical profile of a snakebite victim is a drunk male in his 20s, bitten on his dominant hand (i.e. reaching for the snake).
You are exceedingly unlikely to die from a venomous snake bite while walking around and minding your own business in the U.S., but our mammal brains haven’t caught up with our medical advances.
* * *
Lynne A. Isbell, a professor of anthropology at the University of California-Davis, goes as far as to suggest that snakes impacted our ancestors’ evolution, that snakes drove natural selection toward the visual acuity necessary to avoid them. We’re hardwired to see and react to snakes.
Which is a good thing, as we stumbled onto the first Eastern Massasauga of the day, laying out basking in the open field. We nearly stepped on it. The animal with its dark and light pattern of earth-toned splotches would have been easy to miss. I looked closely at the first venomous snake I’d ever seen in the wild. I studied its keeled scales, the shape of its head.
We circled around it at a safe distance while Lipps examined the snake, gently picking it up with his snake tongs. This thick-bodied, 24-inch gravid female rattler would give live birth to babies later in the summer.
Massasaugas are ovoviviparous (eggs develop in the body of the parent and hatch within or immediately after being expelled). On average, there are eight young in a litter.
The snake tolerated our presence with a certain amount of grace, serenely watching us. She never struck, or even rattled.
“There’s a theory that some snake populations are losing their rattles,” Lipps said. “The snakes that give a warning are often the ones being chopped up by a shovel. From a selection perspective, the rattle doesn’t make sense.”
[blocktext align=”right”]The snake tolerated our presence with a certain amount of grace, serenely watching us. She never struck, or even rattled.[/blocktext]Snakes don’t see very well. They rely mostly on a sense that is approximate to our sense of smell but is much more detailed in directionality and proximity. The rattlesnake’s deeply forked tongue flicked out and gathered chemicals, molecules, and transferred those materials to its Jacobson’s organ – which the snake uses to process the location of potential mates, prey, and enemies.
Lipps detected a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) he had previously placed under the snake’s skin so that it could be permanently identified. After determining that she’d already been tagged for the population study, we left her alone to bask and continued checking our tins.
Interacting with this snake had put me at ease. So much of the fear I had felt was really anxiety about the unknown. I wasn’t ready to take off my protective snake gaiters, I still understood the potential dangers. But the tightness in my chest started to melt away.
I jumped in Lipps’ truck and we headed to the next Massasauga site in his study, a gorgeous wet field butting up against a swamp and a wet forest. The property was buzzing with my favorite warblers – common yellowthroat, and big green dragonflies.
“The snakes really put the wilderness back into the wild,” Lipps said, as we took in the landscape. The atmosphere felt electric.
Walking in venomous snake habitat “fosters a special kind of respect for nature, an urgency that both humbles and enlivens us,” writes Greene in his seminal book, Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature.
I asked why conservation groups didn’t do more to help repopulate Massasauga, not on public park lands for recreation, but maybe in private sanctuaries like this.
“There are probably fields where the Massasauga had been extirpated from that we could reintroduce them,” Rodstrom said. “But then you’re that guy. The first time a kid or dog gets hit…” He trailed off, shaking his head.
“There was a recent study in Ontario, where the reintroduced snakes did really well, but died over winter,” Lipps said. “Hibernation site selection might be a learned behavior.”
Vipers hunt in ways that minimize the cost of feeding, reduce danger from predation. They hunt by lying in ambush, sitting and waiting. They’re so damn hard to see.
We walked out into the field, and soon nearly stepped on another rattlesnake in the open. This one was a dark, gorgeous snake that had not been tagged. The snake was black and olive, and rattled furiously but did not strike as Lipps picked it up with the tongs.
I stared at the animal’s beauty, the scale patterns, shapes of its head and tail. I watched Lipps bag up this specimen in a cloth sack, preparing to tag and study this representative animal, such a significant portion of this tiny population. I tried to bear witness, to a powerful and fascinating species in decline.
Recently, scientists have found a fungal pathogen killing Eastern Massasauga across the Upper Midwest. And habitat destruction continues. Native, diverse grasslands are the most endangered habitats in our region, and wet grasslands are even worse off.
“It’s hard to leave these open places alone,” Rodstrom says. And it’s even harder to do it when the main beneficiary is so hard to love. Venomous snakes test the limits of our empathy for other creatures.
In his book Snakes, Greene quotes Baba Dioum, a Senegalese conservationist:
In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.
Few people will have the opportunity to share the wet fields around northeast Ohio with the Eastern Massasauga, but I hope in some small way, sharing the experience of walking in their presence, the docile nature of these animals, and the details of their life histories helps them to persist.
Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish. More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.
Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Order copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here.
Belt is currently running a fundraising campaign; support independent journalism and get great rewards.