Solo: A Rattlesnake Conservation Story

November 14, 2018

On October 11, 2018, I received a surprising and unexpected call on my phone, “We have at least one baby Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake!” Wow! This is something that hasn’t happened at Seneca Park Zoo since 1997, and something we (well, actually the snakes …) have been working to achieve for over 10 years.

The mother, Braveheart, was born at the Buffalo Zoo on July 8, 2013. She is named for the small heart shaped pattern on both of her parietal scales on top of her head. The father, Striker, came from the Toronto Zoo and is approximately four years old. He is aptly named for obvious reasons.

In natural range, Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes (EMR’s) breed in the spring/summer and give birth the next summer. Females usually give birth every other season and sometimes in three-year cycles. A typical litter may consist of anywhere between 3-19 baby snakes (neonates), but smaller liters are more common. This gives EMR’s a really low biotic potential when it comes to reproduction. Paired with other threats, EMR’s have become federally threatened and Endangered in New York State.

After receiving the radio call, I decided to move Striker into another habitat with a lone male, Molson, to give Mom a break. This way she could continue to give birth. The following day, I came in to find that we had one neonate EMR and four undeveloped ova. We often refer to these as slugs – or eggs that were never fertilized. Mom and baby were seen laying together (see image above). Although rattlesnakes do not provide care to their young, it is common for them to spend time together after giving birth. Sometimes it can last up to a week.

Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake baby
Photo by John Adamski

We named this new snake Solo, a fitting title since it was born without brothers and sisters, and it is the first Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake born at any AZA-accredited zoo this year! This snake will be residing off exhibit as it grows and possibly moves to another recommended AZA institution. Once we determine the sex, it will be recommended to be paired with another EMR by the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Species Survival Plan (SSP).

Every birth of an endangered species is a step forward towards a sustainable future for their counterparts in nature. Learn more about the Zoo’s work in the field for EMRs here.

– John Adamski, Assistant Curator