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A buoyant e-mail: “Fifty-two snakes!”

My herpetologist friend is an expert. She’s got a thing for massasauga rattlesnakes. She’s doing a dissertation on them. Not to advance her career in any way. Because she wants to.

Last year, I was a guest on her crew. She sent directions after extracting my promise to keep the location secret because massasaugas are threatened by illicit collectors. I met them at a wide spot in the forest road and they handed me a snake-handling tool, presuming I’d know how to use it (heh!).

I love hanging out with field biologists. Whatever they’re like in other contexts, in the field they converge on an easy-going sense for the work, low-decibel banter, competence and efficiency. It associates, either as cause or effect, with high tolerances for nuisance insects and temperature/humidity extremes.

None of which was needed the day I tagged along.

Imagine the purest late spring day. Now imagine a short hike through shady woods with good people. We re-emerged into sunshine in a large boggy wetland and fanned out to look for massasaugas basking in morning warmth.

Massasaugas nearly disappear against a sphagnum moss background, so one must look closely. Sure. But they also live among the otherworldly loveliness of ruddy leatherleaf patches, wobbly hummocks of sedge, pitcher plants, and white truffela-tree-like flowers – all guarded by a staggered perimeter of pines, and spring-pale tamaracks. You find them but you pay your dues.

Sphagnum peat forms slowly, requiring fragile hydrological stasis. Drain a wetland nearby, build a road too close or harvest the guardian timber recklessly and you may disrupt the hydrology leading to peat loss and cascading losses of unique peatland plants and animals.

The peatland water table was a foot or so below, it felt like we were walking through a pile of squishy mattresses. Massasaugas use peat to thermoregulate. During night-time cold, they burrow in and even submerge themselves, head up to take advantage of the stable thermal mass of ground water and the insulating layer of peat. As day warms, they tunnel up to bask and forage.

Massasaugas are designated endangered under Wisconsin’s Endangered Species law. My friend directs efforts to monitor populations in key habitat patches. She gently guides the tiny snakes into a clear plastic tube to weigh them, age them (by counting their rattles), and to photograph them.

Massasaugas have chain-like skin patterns that persist despite periodic shedding. Unique patterns of irregular, broken, or fused “links” identify individuals. The information is used to infer population trends.

It all sounds so coldly analytical, but conservation agencies attract a unique personality, people who love things that prompt others to indifference or even contempt. It’s easy to care about majestic tigers, or iconic polar bears, or cuddly pandas as they flirt with endangerment. But what of a tiny gray snake, or an insect, or a mussel, or a non-descript fern? State, Federal, International Endangered Species Laws/Conventions have examples of all of these. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that 13% (birds) to 41% (amphibians) of vertebrate species are threatened with extinction to say nothing of other taxa that are poorly assessed.

These rates are far higher than the background extinction rate estimated over the past hundreds of millions of years and are overwhelmingly associated with human activity following the industrial revolution.

Our blithe indifference is its own blasphemy.

In the context of endangered species, biologists (myself included) often are asked, “what good is it?” Here, Aldo Leopold famously quipped that this question was “the last word in ignorance.” I’m a little more circumspect. I can hear that question in my own Dad’s voice. We think the way that we’ve been taught to think.

Here, biologists suppress their intuition. Usually, they try to relate another species’ good to a human interest despite niggling doubts about common just-so stories. Point to a small number of pollinator insects, and the link is justified. Without them, our agriculture would collapse. Point to Pacific Yew, a rare understory shrub that synthesizes a cancer-fighting chemical (Taxol) and one might argue that an endangered species may harbor some undiscovered use. The probability of this being true for most species is probably small. Or we make the ecosystem-services argument that for instance, its important to conserve bats because they eat mosquitos – implying that we’d be even more bothered by mosquitos but for bats. This last example seems unlikely when I consider likely numbers of bats and mosquitos.

Ultimately, the “what good?” question is misguided. It defines “good” in terms of human interests and betrays a cultural accretion on Christianity and Western thought that commodifies nature, centers human interests, and that’s done too much damage. The vastly underappreciated part of Genesis 1 is that the Creator surveys creation at the end of each day and observes that it is good – a past-tense sentence that is repeated seven times. Not affirmatively created to be good because it serves some human interest, but good in and of itself. And we should infer that goodness holds for corals and annelid worms and duckweed as much as it does for cattle, wheat, and oak trees.

And little grey snakes. Fifty-two snakes (4 were recaptures) is more than double the number we found last year.


Note: snakes were handled under appropriate permits, training, and supervision.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 

7 Comments

  • Marilyn Norman says:

    I enjoy your articles very much. Seventy years ago I lived North of Borculo and we were very afraid of rattle snakes. I often pictured myself attempting to save someone’s life after a bite——-cut and suck!!!! We raised turkeys in the West Olive sand dunes and there were many snakes.

  • Michael c Nold says:

    Excellent post! I’am concerned about all reptiles in Wisconsin and neighboring states. It is interesting that the Menominee valley in Milwaukee once held hundreds of such rattlesnakes. Of course they and everything else was wiped out. My view of the Wood turtle is also a concern. I don’t know how many are left, nor if they can survive the future.

  • Very interesting never knew about the gray snake. Educational thank you

  • I think you are a great writer! I very much enjoyed the flow and style as much as the content. I like snakes and I think the majority of women think that’s wierd. From North Carolina Anna Barnes

  • Jeff Dawson says:

    Enjoyed your article Tim. Reminded me of the Allerton Park Illinois population of this snake. Best wishes for your research adventures.

  • Katt Moore says:

    You can’t “age a rattlesnake by county it’s rattles, ” that’s bs, a rattlesnake gets a new rattle, everytime they shed their skin, and they can shed as much as three or four times in one year, so this “one rattle per year ” crap, is just that, bull crap. I actually own 52 snakes, which also let’s me know, yes, your phones do listen to you, that’s how th8s story called “52 snakes,” was suggested to me, lol, I’m a reptile/snake hobbyist and breeder, and 8 can tell you, snakes can shed many times per year, it all depends on how good they’re eating, and how healthy they are.

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Fair enough. I should have been more careful. There’s no way to definitively age wild massasaugas. Biologists use morphological characteristic like snout-to-vent length to estimate age class (juvenile vrs adult) but the relationships are uncertain. Counting rattles, weighing, length, contribute to crude estimation of age class.

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