Monday, April 13, 2009
For those of you who were in any doubt about my sanity it is just possible that this post will confirm your worst suspicions! For ABC this week I am doing M is for Massasauga.
As some of you know, my work involves caring for a wide range of animals at a Nature Museum. Probably the most precious, and yes, also the most dangerous, is the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Sistrurus catenatus catenatus.
This snake is native to Illinois, which comes as a surprise to many people. Unfortunately, due to persecution and severe loss of habitat it is listed as threatened, hence my comment about it being the most precious of my charges.
People will often ask me why on earth we would want to conserve a venomous snake and when I have overcome the urge to punch them on the nose, I explain that the Massasauga is in fact an umbrella species and by conserving it and the habitat it requires, we are also, by default, providing the ideal habitat for a whole range of other species. Then I usually get 'the look,' what can this small female with the English accent possibly understand about living in an area with venomous snakes? Well then I politely explain to them that I lived in Africa for nine years and had many encounters with venomous snakes! Once we have got that out of the way people seem to be ready to learn about this wonderful creature.
The Massasauga is a member of the pit viper family. All pit vipers in the US have elliptical, cat-like pupils and a heat-sensing pit between the eye and the nostril, on each side of the face, to detect its prey. The small rattle at the end of its tail is made of keratin, the same material our fingernails are made from. A new layer is added to the rattle every time the snake sheds its skin. The head is triangular in shape to accommodate the venom glands behind the eyes in the upper jaw. Massasauga's are in the group known as pygmy rattlesnakes and the adults only reach a diminutive eighteen to thirty inches in length when full grown. The Massasauga inhabits wet prairies, marshes and floodplain forests. Winter hibernation takes place in crayfish burrows or other underground cavities in moist soil.
As you would imagine, we have strict protocols in place for working with this snake. We never unlock the cage for any reason during museum hours so when we need to clean and feed her we work first thing in the morning. Believe me, neither Jamie or I have any need for a cup of coffee in the morning when we work with this snake! One of us is on look-out, equipped with a radio whilst the other one of us removes the snake from its tank, using tongs and a hook. She is placed in a secure container so that we can safely work on cleaning her cage out. The whole time we are working with the snake, a third member of staff is in an office, also with a radio, and a telephone, ready to make the necessary phone calls should anything go wrong! There is nothing like focusing your mind to start the day!
As snakes go this species is actually not particularly aggressive, if you leave it alone, it will return the favour. Of course when it is unceremoniously picked up with tongs and a hook it is not exactly overjoyed, but even then, if I work slowly and smoothly she will relax and allow herself to be scooped up and moved. If we move too fast or abruptly she will not hesitate to strike and unload plenty of venom onto the tongs.
That being said, I do feel very lucky to work with such a rare animal and hopefully go a small way towards helping people to learn about it and encourage them not to automatically kill snakes, after all, even if you don't find them beautiful, which I do, they are an extremely efficient form of rodent control!
For all kinds of posts relating to the letter 'M' check out ABC Wednesday.
Photo Credits - CJT
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