Although rattlesnakes won’t win many wildlife popularity contests, everyone who loves Missouri’s outdoors should be rooting for the Prairie Massasauga rattlesnake to hold on in the state.
As is the case with many other wildlife species in decline, the story of the Prairie Massasauga rattlesnake’s trouble is a tale of disappearing habitat.
A reduction in wet bottomland prairies is thought to be the primary reason for this snake’s demise in Missouri.
Considering that prairies as a whole have declined significantly in Missouri, the loss of wet bottomland prairies is a problem within a problem. The decline of this specialized habitat is troubling for several reasons, but before getting to that, here’s more about the snake.
The Prairie Massasauga is a medium-sized (2-3 feet long) rattlesnake with a short, thick body, rows of dark-brown blotches covering its upper body, and a small rattle at the end of the tail.
The snake has a thick, diamond-shaped head and has dark stripes extending back from the eyes.
They’re mainly found in wet bottomland prairies or other lowland areas by rivers, lakes and marshes. They prefer such places due to the abundance of digging crayfish. Prairie Massasauga snakes use crayfish burrows to seek shelter from predators and weather conditions.
They feed primarily upon rodents, small snakes and lizards. Most of their hunting occurs during the day, except in the hottest part of the summer when this species becomes more active at night.
Missouri is home, or once was home, to four rattlesnake species – the Timber Rattlesnake, the Western Pygmy Rattlesnake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (now extirpated from the state) and the Prairie Massasauga Rattlesnake.
Although rattlesnakes need to be respected and given their space when they’re encountered in the wild, Hollywood’s portrayal of these well-known venomous snakes hasn’t been entirely truthful and accurate.
Rattlesnakes do not lie in seclusion, looking for the first unsuspecting human to come within striking range nor do they go out of their way to stalk and attack humans.
One purpose of these snakes’ rattles is to communicate with other rattlesnakes; the other is as a warning device to warn potential predators to stay away.
So to repeat – they want to warn people, not attack them. Because of their secretive nature, a keen sense of smell, and an acute ability to detect vibrations on the ground, rattlesnakes usually detect humans long before they, themselves are seen. This allows them the opportunity to make a quick escape to a hidden location.
Virtually the only times rattlesnakes vibrate their rattles in self-defense is when they are startled out of slumber or as a last-resort defense mechanism when they perceive themselves to be hopelessly cornered.
When a human encounters a rattlesnake, the snake would prefer to escape or to simply be left alone as opposed to striking and using up venom it instinctually knows it needs for getting prey.
What hasn’t gotten much attention is the benefit a rattlesnake’s diet provides to humans. Mice and other small rodents are a prime food item of prairie massasauga snakes (and the state’s other rattlesnake species, too).
Because of their larger size, an added benefit the Timber Rattlesnake provides is that it consumes rats and other larger rodents. So, odd as it may sound considering the Hollywood-driven image most people have of these reptiles, rattlesnakes help us much more than they harm us.
Snake venom has also had medicinal benefits for humans. A variety of drugs derived from snake venom are used for heart disease, diabetes, pain relief and some forms of cancer research.
In the case of the Prairie Massasauga, it’s not just a case of losing a snake that helps people more than many realize; it’s also a case of losing habitat that’s beneficial to us.
A wet bottomland prairie is just exactly what its name says it is – a native lowland grassland that occurs on relatively level, saturated, or seasonally inundated stream and river floodplains. Seasonal saturation through flooding or other high-water events help restrict shrub and tree establishment.
In addition to providing habitat to a wide variety of species, the dense mat of vegetation also helps humans by providing soil erosion protection and water quality enhancement via filtration.
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Wet bottomland prairies are known for rich, high-quality soil and this made them targets for drainage and farming as the land became settled.
As a result, wet prairies are classified as critically endangered habitats in most states (including Missouri) where they are found today.
Thankfully, a growing number of landowners are realizing the benefits of prairies in general and are also gaining a better understanding of the variations in prairie habitat (wet prairie, bottomland prairie, sand prairie, etc.).
What does it look like?
Prairie Massasauga rattlesnakes are two-three feet long and have thick bodies. Their general coloration is light gray with rows of brown blotches. The head is thick, diamond-shaped and has dark stripes extending back from the eyes.
Sistrurus tergeminus tergeminus
Until recently, Massasauga rattlesnakes were considered one species with three subspecies. However, now two full species occur in the U.S. – Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus) and Western Massasauga (Sistrurus tergeminus). Prairie Massasauga snakes, a subspecies of the Western Massasauga, are still found in isolated areas of north-central and northwestern Missouri. The Eastern Massasauga is considered to be extirpated from the state.
Where is it found?
Preferred habitats for Prairie Massasauga rattlesnakes are wet bottomland prairies dominated by cordgrass, sedges, bulrushes and lowland areas along rivers and lakes. The Prairie Massasauga is found in a few counties in north-central and northwest Missouri although it once had a larger range in the state based on historical documentation.
Gone from Missouri
While the plight of the Prairie Massasauga rattlesnake in Missouri’s wet-prairie areas is precarious, the situation of another snake that had a habitat preference for prairies in the state is worse. It’s believed that the plains hog-nosed snake (Heterodon nasicus), once a resident of prairies in northwestern Missouri, has disappeared from the state. No sightings of this snake have been recorded in Missouri since 1961. This snake name “hognose” comes from its upturned nose, an adaptation that is good for burrowing. Plains hog-nosed snakes are nonvenomous and is best-known for its defensive trait of flattening it’s neck, hissing and making mock strikes (often with its mouth closed). Occasionally, the snake will “play dead.” The plains hognosed snake probably never had a wide-spread population in Missouri. It’s presumed the two common reasons for a snake’s extirpation – habitat changes and persecution – are the reasons this snake disappeared from Missouri.
People wanting to learn more about how to manage native grassland or remnant prairie areas on their land can contact their nearest Missouri Department of Conservation or get information at mdc.mo.gov.
(Francis Skalicky works for the Missouri Department of Conservation and can be reached at 417-895-6880.)