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Michigan's only venomous snake is federally threatened, but getting help from the John Ball Zoo

An eastern massasauga rattlesnake basking in a wetland.
Beth Weiler
Michigan Radio
An eastern massasauga rattlesnake basking in a Michigan wetland.

The John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids is working to conserve the eastern massasauga rattlesnake through field studies and a captive breeding program. The zoo has partnered with the Sarett Nature Center in Benton Harbor to conduct long-term monitoring studies of massasauga populations in Michigan. The federally threatened and elusive species is Michigan's only venomous snake and is in decline due to habitat loss, road mortality and persecution.

Massasaugas - also called "swamp rattlers" because of the wetland habitats in which they are usually found - are important predators and keep rodent populations in check, which can decrease occurrences of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme. The rattlers prefer a particular wetland habitat known as a prairie fen; to conserve the snake, prairie fens must also be preserved.

John Ball Zoo conservation manager Bill Flanagan says, "It's a rare habitat, a globally rare habitat that we have quite a bit of, especially in Southern Michigan. So Michigan's actually a really important spot for the conservation of massasaugas and prairie fen."

John Ball Zoo has projects addressing the conservation of other prairie fen species like the spotted turtle and the Mitchell's satyr butterfly. Conserving the rattlesnake benefits other species of reptiles, amphibians, insects and birds.

The Zoo also keeps a captive breeding pair of massasaugas. The goal for the pair is to create a "captive assurance population" with diverse genes so that zoos can have healthy genetic populations without removing animals from the wild.

Michigan has the most eastern massasaugas out of all the states where they're found. Flanagan says, "Whatever happens to the massasauga in Michigan will determine the fate of the species. Here in Michigan, we really are the stewards for the species."

Beth Weiler is a Newsroom intern covering the environment.
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