Massasauga Rattlesnake Translocation

It’s never good when human development encroaches on critical habitat of at-risk wildlife.  But it’s especially problematic in the case of the threatened massasauga rattlesnake — Ontario’s only remaining venomous reptile. 

Find out more about this species. 

The eastern Georgian Bay region is the largest remaining uninterrupted range of the massasauga in Canada. However, as human development expands, critical habitat is impacted.

Hibernation sites (known as “hibernaculum”), are some of the most sensitive critical habitat for the species.  Snakes are often moved out of harm’s way when human development encroaches on their habitat, but the long-term effectiveness of this technique is not proven.

In order to test whether translocations can save snakes whose hibernation sites are threatened by development, we are undertaking trial translocations. Snakes are moved in the fall, just prior to hibernation. Fencing around the hibernation site simulates its destruction, and funnel traps allow us to trap and identify all snakes entering and leaving the complex to gain a complete picture of the population of massasaugas using this site.

The project includes determining how faithful massasaugas are to their hibernation sites and whether translocating snakes to other sites might be effective.

Results from an initial three-year radiotracking study show that while overwinter survival of translocated adults is high, this method has a low likelihood of long-term success, owing to the strong bond adults have with their original hibernation site

As the next step, in 2016 we translocated 41 newly hatched snakes (known as neonates), so that the young snake’s initial bond is forged at the selected site. Neonates were headstarted in captivity for several weeks and released during the fall return to hibernation sites, in an effort to increase their survival during this susceptible period.  Spring monitoring to measure overwinter survival will allow the effectiveness of this technique to be evaluated.

Through this project, we are determining whether and how translocation can be effectively used to reduce the impact of critical habitat destruction on massasauga rattlesnakes. This will result in techniques which could be used to save or reintroduce massasauga rattlesnakes wherever the need arises.

This project is currently being led by Eric Jolin. Eric has spent the past four  years focusing primarily on the conservation of massasauga rattlesnakes throughout Ontario. Since graduating from the University of Guelph with a BSc in Wildlife Biology & Conservation, he has worked with two distinct regional populations of massasaugas: eastern Georgian Bay; and the Ojibway Prairie Complex. Working out of Killbear Provincial Park, Eric was first exposed to massasaugas as a park naturalist and would go on to become a researcher, continuing an ongoing study on roadkill mitigation within the park. After joining Wildlife Preservation Canada as a field biologist, he spent the next two years studying this endangered population as part of the Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery Program. Most recently, Eric worked as a research assistant with the Soutpansberg Center for Biodiversity and Conservation in South Africa, working with venomous snakes and monitoring the region’s exceptionally high herpetofaunal diversity.

This project was led by Michael Colley to the end of 2017. Michael holds a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo, a Graduate Certificate in Ecosystem Restoration from Niagara College and a Master’s of Science from Laurentian University. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation as an assistant environmental planner and Environment Canada as a wildlife technician. Most recently, his Master’s thesis involved evaluating the effectiveness of ecopassages and wildlife fencing installed in Killbear Provincial Park to reduce massasauga rattlesnake road mortality.

The initial 2013-15 study was performed by Ron Black, who has now returned to his Wildlife Biologist position with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Parry Sound District office.

 

 

 

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