Timber Rattlesnake Recovery Program
Roger Williams Park Zoo has agreed to receive and hold Timber Rattlesnakes (C. horridus) from endangered New England populations. This species, an integral part of the food web is seriously threatened in all New England. In addition, some snakes are being affected by a new and serious fungal disease that is of serious concern. It’s clear that intense conservation action is needed.
Why is the Timber Rattlesnake Endangered?
Human fear is the greatest threat to the timber rattlesnake. Timber rattlesnake territories have declined from 31 states to 27, and populations have been completely extirpated from Maine, Rhode Island, central New Hampshire, most of Vermont, Long Island, eastern and northern Ohio, and probably from Michigan and possibly from Delaware.
This serious concern is multiplied by the fact that since 2009, timber rattlesnakes from separate populations in eastern, central, and western Massachusetts have been found to have significant disease identified as fungal dermatitis. This disease has been previously documented by scientists as a cause of morbidity and mortality in both captive and free-ranging viperidae [venomous viper taxon] snakes.
Timber Rattlesnake: Why Does it Matter?
These rattlers eat–and therefore manage populations of–small mammals, birds, and sometimes lizards, frogs and other snakes. In turn, the snakes provide a source of food for hawks, bobcats, coyotes, and foxes, while black racers and king snakes will prey upon young timber rattlers. It’s clear to see that they play a critical role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem, but that’s not their only asset. Timber rattlesnakes also benefit humans by helping to control Lyme disease – a debilitating tick-born illness often carried by rodents that end up as a rattlesnake’s meal.
The Cooperative Conservation Project – A Closer Look
Currently, nine states (including all New England states) and the Province of Ontario offer the timber rattlesnake some form of protection, listing it as threatened or endangered, or having a restricted or no-take policy. Fifteen other states have general regulations that protect some or all herpetofauna [the class of animals that includes amphibians and reptiles] and therefore the timber rattlesnake by default.
In 2011, RWPZ staff members joined New England biologists and conservationists in a collaborative regional effort created to save the remaining timber rattlesnake populations. They believe that a protected genetic reservoir from the most threatened populations in the northeast should be established in captivity until a solid conservation initiative develops. This involves head-starting and possibly captive reproduction in the future as well as addressing the fungal dermatitis problem.
In 2012, Disney’s Animal Kingdom provided $6,000 for a pilot program to help develop the protocols that would be needed for a larger-scale project.
In early 2013, the collaborators received an $81,300 Northeast Regional Conservation Needs Grant for the assessment and evaluation of the prevalence of the fungal dermatitis in New England timber rattlesnake populations.
In 2014, the RWP Zoo veterinary and conservation departments in partnership with state biologists finished the two-year federally funded study doing research to learn more about the fungus, and determine how prevalent the fungus is in New England Populations. This work was featured on “Ocean Mysteries” with Jeff Corwin in November of that year.
Wildlife disease studies in natural populations are becoming increasingly important in aiding wildlife management and conservation. Many infectious agents pose a threat to wildlife populations, and there is a growing body of literature documenting disease outbreaks that are effecting populations and even extirpated species.
The grant monies will undertake a comprehensive evaluation and a baseline health assessment of multiple New England populations as well as to provide scientific support for future policy and wildlife management decisions for this species. The study will present evidence of the extent of fungal dermatitis among multiple rattlesnake populations, and evaluate potential underlying stressors or factors predisposing the species to fungal disease.
The partners will use the information to try to determine whether the fungal disease seen is a primary pathogen or a secondary opportunistic invader. They also will look for insight as to whether these are isolated cases or if they are indicative of wider health concerns within timber rattlesnake populations. Additionally, they will produce a geographical map of fungal infections identified in New England populations.
Researchers will evaluate the presence of heavy metals and toxins as potential immune system stressors thus utilizing the timber rattlesnake as an indicator of potential environmental pollutants as well as overall ecosystem health.
Currently, we are headstarting individuals that will be used to augment dwindling populations in New England. In addition, the partnership is continuing to ensure the survival of the species throughout New England, such as providing medical support and other crucial intervention.
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Questions? Contact Louis Perrotti, Director of Conservation Programs at Lperrotti@rwpzoo.org or call (401) 785-3510 ext. 335.