- Associated Press - Monday, August 17, 2015

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (AP) - Taylor Lehman winds her way through waist-high grass, the swampy ground soaking her water shoes and the morning dew drenching her pant legs.

Lehman heads toward clumps of grass and plants, or small trees and shrubs, stopping at each to probe the base with her snake holder to see an eastern massasauga rattlesnake may be hiding there.

“We haven’t found many snakes at all,” the Fort Wayne native said of her survey work in northern Indiana. “It’s kind of depressing.”

Lehman, a graduate student at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, spent a recent sunny day searching a marsh and a wet prairie in Kosciusko County for the approximately 2-foot-long snake native to Indiana and much of the Great Lakes area - including Fort Wayne.

Indiana now considers the eastern massasauga an endangered species, as do many states where it lives. The snake also is a candidate for listing as a federal endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports.



“It’s been in peril since I have been aware of it,” said Bruce Kingsbury, a biology professor at IPFW who has been involved in research on the snake for 20 years and who is Lehman’s professor.

The massasauga faces three major threats, said Kingsbury, who also leads IPFW’s Environmental Resources Center.

(asterisk) The snake prefers to live in fens and wet prairies, where the soil is saturated with moisture but the snake doesn’t have to spend all of its time in water.

“The habitat they use is almost entirely gone,” Kingsbury said.

(asterisk) Many people kill massasaugas because they fear it, or because it is one of four venomous snakes native to Indiana, he said. The other Indiana poisonous snakes are the timber rattlesnake, copperhead and cottonmouth, but Kingsbury believes there may not be any cottonmouths still living in the wild in Indiana.

“We’ve worked on those snakes for two decades, and no one has ever been bitten,” Kingsbury said. The massasauga may bite only if picked up or if caught out in the open, such as on a road, he said.

(asterisk) Snake fungal disease has been attacking massasaugas and some other snakes in the eastern and central United States. The disease causes swelling, scabs, open wounds and disfigurement, and usually is fatal for massasaugas.

Scientists don’t have a good estimate on how many massasaugas still are left in the wild in Indiana, Kingsbury said. He hopes to formulate an estimate based on research by Lehman and other IPFW students - including two working now in Michigan. They also want to determine the ecological makeup of sites the snakes like and how to manage land for the snakes’ survival.

Lehman, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Ball State University in Muncie, said she became involved in massasauga research because she didn’t know as much about reptiles and amphibians, and wanted to learn more. Projects like this one also help IPFW students learn more about doing research in the wild and hone their skills in statistical analysis and speaking and writing about their research topic, Kingsbury said.

Lehman has been surveying 12 sites across northern Indiana to see if any massasaugas still exist in areas where they were last reported seen five to 15 years ago or 15 to 30 years ago. So far, she has seen only two massasaugas, one each at two different sites. She also records other reptile and amphibians she sees during the search.

Noble, LaGrange and Steuben counties have the most massasaugas in the wild, she said.

The snakes used to live as close as Fox Island County Park southwest of Fort Wayne, but none has been seen there since about 1997, said Ron Zartman, the site’s park and education manager.

“The valley out here apparently was full of them,” Zartman said people have told him. He’s even heard that farmers used to wear metal stovepipe around their legs to keep from getting bitten if they got off their tractors in the fields.

Lehman’s recent site surveys in Kosciusko County were part of a second round of surveying. She first trudged through the sites this spring. She’s returning in early August in hopes of finding pregnant females getting ready to give birth to their live babies.

However, both sites have declined in value as massasauga habitat. One was choked with reed canary grass, which makes it difficult for the snakes to move through the marsh in search of food or a mate. At the second site, high water levels this spring allowed cattails to migrate well into a low, wet prairie preferred by the snakes.

Lehman didn’t see any snakes, but she spied several leopard frogs and at least one toad.

While her survey of the two sites yielded disappointing results, she enjoys conservation work and believes IPFW students’ work is making a contribution.

“Working with endangered species, I feel like I am helping them,” she said.

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Source: The (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, https://bit.ly/1MsL0ot

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Information from: The News-Sentinel, https://www.news-sentinel.com/ns

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