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Michigan's Only Venomous Snake Threatened By Deadly Fungus

An Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake infected with snake fugal disease
Danielle Bradke

Update: The Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake was listed as a federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in September 2016. 

A new fungus in Michigan is threatening the state’s only venomous snake. The Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake lives primarily in the lower third of Michigan in swamps and marshes.

Snake fungal disease causes swelling, scabs, or wounds on the snake’s skin, often leading to death. This disease has been found in about eight different species of snake in the United States.

Dr. Jennifer Moore teaches biology at Grand Valley State University and has done research on the disease. She’ll host a discussion on snake fungal disease Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute in Hastings.

Why Should We Care About A Venomous Snake?

Moore says the Eastern Massasauga eats things we humans tend to dislike, like mice. Also, like other rattlesnakes, Massasauga venom has been vital to medical research in the past. The biggest reason to keep the snake around is because it's part of a threatened ecosystem - the wetlands. The wetlands are home to diverse plants and wildlife - including many species that are endangered in the United States. 

“We want to try and conserve each part of that puzzle to make sure that we have healthy, functioning ecosystems," says Moore. "So if we can bring attention to this species—being that it is a wetland species—that means more attention paid to wetlands.”

Moore says the Eastern Massasauga is also a candidate for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. 

“They’re threatened or endangered in every state in which they occur—with the exception of Michigan, where they remain only as a species of special concern. Which basically means that they’re doing well or relatively well in Michigan compared to everywhere else throughout their range," says Moore.

Moore says the Massasauga is a shy, small snake that is very rare to see. 

Snake Fungal Disease

Snake fungal disease was originally found in the eastern U.S. among Timber rattlesnakes. Moore says researchers do not know how the disease spread to Michigan, though it could have been carried by snakes in captivity.

The disease was first detected in Michigan in Grayling in 2013. Moore says, in the sites GVSU has tested, the disease was only found in about one snake out of every 40. But if a snake gets the disease, it has a very low chance of survival.

Moore says there isn't much research on snake fungal disease right now. What we do know is that it feeds on the keratin in a snake's skin - the same material found in human hair and nails. It can spread from snake to snake and Moore says it's likely an opportunistic virus. That means the fungus lives in the soil or water and snakes pick it up as they slither through it. 

A longer interview with Dr. Jennifer Moore

Rebecca Thiele was an environmental reporter and producer of Arts & More for WMUK. She worked at the station from 2011 to 2019.