May 5, 2009

Illinois gathering up small rattlesnakes

Illinois wildlife officials are holding a rattlesnake roundup, this one aimed at saving the local population of eastern massasauga snakes.

The snakes, growing no more than 2 feet long, are the only rattlesnakes surviving around Chicago. The Illinois Department of Wildlife, working with U.S. Fish and Game and the Lincoln Park Zoo, hopes to breed enough snakes in captivity to get local numbers back up.

Experts say the eastern massasauga is shy. Joanne Earnhardt, a biologist at the zoo who heads the population plan for the species, said last week that the snakes will remain perfectly still when people are only a few inches away, hoping to be unobserved.

They aren't a very rattling rattlesnake, she said.

Earnhardt said the snakes rarely bite humans and, even when they do, the bites are unlikely to be fatal. She said in many cases massasaugas inject no venom when they bite people, recognizing that they are too large to eat.

Searchers this spring and for the next few years plan to search areas where the snakes are known to have been active in the past. In late April, they found two in the same wetland area.