The eastern massasauga rattlesnake, Ontario's only venomous snake, is a species threatened with extinction. The Toronto Zoo tries to help.
More and more people are caring about wildlife, and given the dwindling numbers and the continuously increasing numbers of species facing extinction, this is a positive development. Much of this care is directed towards birds and furry creatures, while other types such as arachnids, insects or amphibians aren't so well loved. Possibly the least loved category of animals are snakes, and in this category, the venomous snakes are the most hated fraction of these.
Saturday, 18 april 2009, I was invited by Andrew Lentini of the Toronto Zoo to attend a workshop on the eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus). Since I do not drive, I took the subway at College station at 8 am. From there, the subway took me to Sheppard station, where I changed to the Sheppard subway line, the latest addition to Toronto's extensive subway system. This took me as far as Don Mill station, where I changed to a bus that took me to the main entrance of the Toronto Zoo. From there, I walked around the zoo to the administrative building on Old Finch Avenue, a walk of 1.7km if my GPS is right.
I arrived there at 10:03 AM, a few minutes late. Needless to say, a car would have required less effort, and would have been substantially faster. The "faster" part is a bit of an illusion though. Since I did not have to drive, I was able to read a book, something car drivers are wise not to attempt while they are on the move.
It seems that the organizers had the orientation-challenged like me in mind, for I was able to effortlessly and unhesitatingly follow the paper spoor to the boardroom where the workshop was to take place. Bob Johnson, a gentle man who is well-known for his love for herptiles, welcomed us and gave us some educational materials :a DVD, a brochure, a laminated snake identifier, a poster, a Parks Canada flyer and a sticker.
The DVD is well-worth watching for its information and maybe even more so for its demonstration of how to handle rattlesnakes.
The brochure is equally interesting, if not more. Rather than containing the trivial non-information we have come to expect of "information" brochures, this brochure contains genuinely useable information about the snake, such as its way of life and its behaviour, snakes that are often confused with rattlesnakes and more.
The laminated snake identifier is interesting for everyone in Ontario, not just for people who may be confronted with rattlesnakes, since it shows all native Ontario snakes along with information on how to identify them.
The bilingual Canada Parks flyer could use some rework, but contains nevertheless pertinent information one would do well to heed.
The workshop consisted of three parts: a Powerpoint (oh no!) presentation by Bob Johnson, a practical demonstration by Andrew Lentini, and a question-and-answer session.
"Death by Powerpoint" is a well-known expression that says a lot about how unuseful Powerpoint presentations tend to be, but it seems safe to assume that the person who coined it had never attended a presentation by Bob Johnson. The slides were both entertaining and genuinely interesting. Bob's extensive knowledge and personal experience are a de facto guarantee for an interesting presentation, and his mild and gentle ways made it into a thoroughly enjoyable experience as well.
A few of the salient points:
The massasauga rattlesnake is at its most northern distribution limits here. The reason that the rattlesnake still can be found around Georgian Bay is, ironically, the large amounts of snowfall, coming from the lake. The snow provides an insulating blanket during the winter, keeping the snakes a few degrees warmer than in other regions of Ontario.
Since snowfall rapidly diminishes with distance, most massasaugas are found within a distance of about 20 kilometres of the lake. Beyond that, there is not enough snow to keep them alive during hibernation, and they die. As a result, they are effectively trapped in this narrow area.
Humans are increasingly building houses around Georgian Bay and this is leading to a fragmentation of the areas where they live. This leads to smaller populations, more inbreeding, and a less viable population.
Females bear live young, once every three years or so. That makes the population very vulnerable, because it takes so long to replace a lost female.
Female snakes stay within a radius of about 600 metres their entire lifetime. Males travel more when they are looking for females. They are also the ones most often killed on roads. The more fragmented their habitats become, the more roadkill there is going to be.
Massasaugas are short snakes, typically 47cm to 76cm long. The largest ever measured was 100.3cm long. If you ever hear someone who claims to have seen a 6 foot rattlesnake, you know it wasn't a rattlesnake, but a non-venomous foxsnake instead.
Although it is hard to confuse the massasauga with other snakes once one has seen the difference, the differences may not always be so obvious in real life, because of their camouflage.
We have no other rattlesnakes than the massasauga, but foxsnakes and milksnakes can make their tails vibrate to make a noise that is essentially indistinguishable from the massasauga's rattle.
The massasauga is our only venemous snake. There are only two snake-bite recorded deaths in Ontario. No one has died in the past 40 years. In other words, massasauga rattlesnakes are far less dangerous than bees (stings), deer (roadway collisions) or bears.
A massasauga bite is a medical emergency, but it must not be exaggerated. You have the time to be taken to a hospital where you will be observed, symptomatically treated, and -only if necessary- given antivenom.
If you encounter a massasauga on your property, you should move it to another spot on your property, or call for help. You should not move it far away, because this means nearly certainly that the snake will not survive the winter as it will not find an appropriate hibernation site and will freeze to death as a result.
Massasaugas are very shy, non-aggressive snakes. They do not seek out humans to attack and even when threatened, they will only bite as a last resort.
Making venom is a very expensive process for the snake and it will try not to use it when not absolutely necessary. As a result, approximately 1 bite in 4 will not result in envenomation.
Human males between 10-29 years old are most commonly bit by rattlesnakes (about 50% of the total number of cases) because of typical stupid male behaviour.
The massasauga ratllesnake is a species threatened with extinction. Killing a snake can carry a severe penalty and/or prison sentence.
When the presentation was finished we had a lunch break, followed by Andrew Lentini's practical demonstrations.
The first thing that was obvious, is that great care is taken when the snakes are transported. They are put in pillowcases or fabric bags of similar construction which are closed with a knot. These bags are put in specially made thermically insulated carriers that are somewhat comparable to the coolers people use for picnics. The carriers are then closed with zippers, precluding any possibility of accidental escape of the snakes.
Venomous snakes such as the massasauga are first put in padlocked containers before they are put in the carriers, in order to avoid any accidents.
The first snake Andrew showed us was a middle aged milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum)), about 10 years old, probably around 70cm long. It is easy to see why non-specialists mistake this slender snake for a rattlesnake. The colours and patterns are similar, and while they are easily distinguished in controlled conditions, it would be a lot more difficult in more natural circumstances. Andrew gave us the possibility to see and touch the snake, a very interesting experience for anyone and even more so for people who have never had such an opportunity.
The second snake was a foxsnake, an animal that was both longer and quite a bit thicker than the milksnake, and its scales were quite a bit more shiny. We were able to see and feel this snake as well.
Then came a short and rather hilarious, but nevertheless very important demonstration of how to pick up a massasauga rattlesnake with snake hooks. Most people don't have snake hooks, but a paint roller stick will do the trick just fine, and even safer for people who are not experts in dealing with snakes.
Finally, the star of the workshop was let out. Andrew demonstrated how peaceful massasauga rattlesnakes are. He took the snake out and put it on the floor. The snake stayed where it was put, calmly looked around, seemed to be interested in a dark corner Andrew had predicted it could possibly interested in, and started to crawl towards it.
This wasn't the plan, however, and it was then used to show easy it is to put a snake in a container using a snake hook, and also how easy it is to encourage a massasauga to crawl into a container. Encouraging it to crawl into a plastic tube proved a little harder, but even that proved quite possible.
With its head and part of its body well secured in the plastic tube, we were given the opportunity to see the snake from close by and to touch it as well.
The workshop ended with a question and answer period.
After the presentation, there was still a little time left to visit the zoo. I was really in a hurry to do so, but I couldn't resist asking Bob Johnson a few questions before dashing off, trying to see the entire zoo in two hours.
I know that there are no massasauga rattlesnakes in Toronto, but I have seen quite a few garter snakes, including the melanistic morphs. I have also seen Dekay's brownsnakes and a single milksnake. Are there any other snakes here?
Yes, there are also red-bellied snakes.
I have heard that there are greensnakes in Toronto, but I have never seen one. What do you think?
There are indeed some spots where it is possible to see greensnakes.
What about northern watersnakes? I have once seen a snake in the water, on the Toronto Islands, but because I didn't expect it at all, and because the sighting didn't last longer than a fraction of a second, I didn't have the time to be sure of what I saw, it could have been a garter snake.
I am not sure. I am aware of two or three reports of northern watersnake sightings, but the reliability is uncertain. The snake you saw, was indeed probably a garter snake.
Have you ever seen intelligent behaviour in snakes?
Yes, we know that they have memory and that they have the ability to learn. They learn to know the terrain where they live, and they adapt to behaviour changes in their prey.
Have you ever seen something genuinely intelligent, something you would not expect to happen without real intelligence?
A colleague of mine was studying massasauga feeding habits, and he was observing a snake waiting for prey. Its field of view was occasionally blocked by a fallen leaf, lifted up by the wind. When this had happened a few time, the snake crawled forward, flattened the leaf with its head, and then returned to its hiding place, waiting for prey.
If you ever have the chance of attending this workshop, do not hesitate to do so. You will learn a lot about the rattlesnake and you will have the opportunity to see this magnificent animal from closeby. This is a no-nonsense workshop. Bob Johnson and Andrew Lentini are true experts. They know what they are talking about, they love the subject and the animals themselves, and they are realists.
This was an experience to remember for a very long time.