Michigan Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, photo by Jonathan Schechter/Earth’s Almanac

In Season of the Massasauga Rattler!, Jonathan Schechter writes that the massasauga  likes our sun-soaked trails in the waning days of summer and early autumn, so you may catch a glimpse of one if you’re out and about in Lower Michigan. The Michigan DNR page on the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) explains:

Michigan’s only venomous snake is a rare sight for most state residents. Historically, they could be found in a variety of wetlands and nearby upland woods throughout the lower peninsula. During the late spring, these snakes move from their winter hibernation sites, such as crayfish chimneys and other small mammal burrows in swamps and marshlands, to hunt on the drier upland sites – likely in search of mice and voles, their favorite food.

Females give birth to 8 to 20 young in late summer. The young snakes have a single “button” on their tails; a new rattle segment is added at each shedding of the skin, which occurs several times per year.

The massasauga can be characterized as a shy, sluggish snake. Its thick body is colored with a pattern of dark brown slightly rectangular patches set against a light gray-to-brown background. Occasionally, this coloration can be so dark as to appear almost black. The belly is mostly black. It is the only Michigan snake with segmented rattles on the end of its tail and elliptical, (“cat like”) vertical pupils in the eyes. The neck is narrow, contrasting with the wide head and body and the head appears triangular in shape. Adult length is 2 to 3 feet.

These rattlesnakes avoid confrontation with humans; they are not prone to strike – preferring to leave the area when they are threatened. Like any animal though, these snakes will protect themselves from anything they see as a potential predator. Their short fangs can easily puncture skin and they do possess a potent venom. It is best to treat them with respect and leave them alone. The few bites that occur to humans often result from attempts to handle or kill the snakes. Any bite from a massasauga should receive prompt professional medical attention. When compared to other rattlesnakes found in the United States, the massasauga is the smallest and has the least toxic venom.

Massasaugas are found throughout the Lower Peninsula, but not in the Upper Peninsula (thus there are no poisonous snakes on the Upper Peninsula mainland.)

They stress that Massasaugas are listed as a “species of special concern” and are protected by state law, so don’t kill or harm them. Read on for more including some lookalike snakes.

Jonathan adds that almost all rattler bites are on the dominant hand of the offending human! He took the photo above two years ago on a popular Oakland County hike-bike trail and notes that much of Oakland County is ratter habitat. Visit Earth’s Almanac to read more and be sure to subscribe to his blog when you’re there!

PS: Nick Scobel of the Herping Michigan blog has a great video of some Eastern Massasaugas that you should check out!

More Michigan snakes on Michigan in Pictures!

Northern Water Snake

August 9, 2013

Northern Water Snake

Northern Water Snake, photo by Brian Laskowski

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources page on the Northern Water Snake says:

Description: A water snake with dark bands or blotches on a light brown or gray background color. Some old adults may appear solid black or brown. The belly is white with reddish half moon shaped markings; some specimens have an orange belly speckled with brown or black. (The endangered Copper Bellied Water Snake has an unmarked reddish or orange belly.) Adult length: 2 to 4 feet.

Habitat and Habits: These snakes inhabit the shorelines of lakes, ponds, or streams. They swim well, seeking food (frogs and fish) and safety in the water, and often bask on objects hanging over the water. Water snakes are not venomous, but will bite if cornered or handled. They are sometimes mistakenly called “water moccasins” (which are not native to Michigan).

Reproduction: Females give birth to their 7 to 9 inch young in late summer. There are 8 to 48 babies in a litter. The young are gray or brown with bold black bands.

Range and Status: Northern water snakes are found throughout the Lower Peninsula and the eastern Upper Peninsula. Needless persecution by humans has eliminated water snakes from many places where they were once common.

The DNR’s Michigan Snake Page adds that there are just 17 species of snake in Michigan, so do what you can to protect this snake and its kin.

Check it out bigger and see more in Brian’s Michiganscapes slideshow.

More Michigan snakes on Michigan in Pictures.

Blue Racer

Blue Racer, photo by d charvat.

“I liked to go on the road and catch the blue racers and sort of scare my brothers,” she said. “I’d drape them around my neck and around my wrist. I was the ultimate tomboy when I grew up here in Manistee and I loved the Great Lakes. “
~Ann Romney recalling her Michigan childhood (article)

While Mitt Romney’s “the trees are the right height” memories of Michigan drew some laughter, I doubt that anyone would laugh at tomboy Ann Davies with a couple of blue racers draped around her arms.

The DNR’s page on Michigan snakes says that Michigan has 17 native species. Their Blue Racer (Coluber constrictor foxi) page explains:

A large gray or blue snake with smooth scales. The head is usually darker than the body, though the chin and throat are white. The belly is light blue or white. Young racers are grayish, with a pattern of darker blotches and spots. Adult length: 4 to 6 feet.

Racers inhabit a variety of places, including open woods, meadows, hedge rows, marshes, and weedy lake edges. They are alert, active snakes that may climb into low bushes to escape enemies. These snakes feed on rodents, frogs, smaller snakes, birds, and insects. Although they will bite if cornered or grabbed, racers are not venomous.

Females lay 6 to 25 eggs in rotting wood or underground during June and July. The young racers hatch in late summer and, as noted above, are colored differently than the adults.

Racers have been found through most of the Lower Peninsula (except the northernmost sections) and the southern tip of the Upper Peninsula. Once common, their numbers have fallen in many places. Needless persecution by humans as well as habitat loss are probable factors in this decline.

The Coluber constrictor Eastern Racer entry from Animal Diversity Web says that the blue racer is one of several different racer subpopulations and adds a lot more information and photos including that in the wild, racers have been known to live over 10 years. You can also watch a cool video of a BIG blue racer by the Saline Snake Guy.

d charvat writes that they saw this good-sized blue racer while hiking in the Middleville MI state game area. Check it out background big and see a lot more cool shots from out and about in their slideshow.

Eastern Hog-nose Snake

June 1, 2011

Eastern Hog Nose Snake 2

Eastern Hog Nose Snake 2, photo by ShaneWyatt.

The Michigan DNR page on the Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) says this is a:

A thick-bodied, slow-moving snake with a flattened, upturned “nose.” Color is variable some have dark spots and blotches on a yellow, orange, or brown background, but other specimens are solid black, brown, or olive with little or no visible pattern. Easily identified by defensive behavior. Adult length: 20 to 40 inches.

A snake of open, sandy woodlands – found in the wooded dunes of western Michigan. The upturned snout is used to burrow after toads, a favorite food. When threatened, hognose snakes puff up with air, flatten their necks and bodies, and hiss loudly. (This has led to local names like “puff adder” or “hissing viper.”) If this act is unsuccessful, they will writhe about, excrete a foul smelling musk, and then turn over with mouth agape and lie still, as though dead. Despite this intimidating behavior, Hog-nosed snakes are harmless to humans.

You can see a lot of pictures at the UM Animal Diversity Web and definitely check out Hog Wild on the Herping Michigan blog.

Shane writes that it was pretty intimidating to see the snake flair like a cobra and start hissing at him. Check it out bigger and see some more shots in his eastern hognose slideshow.

More Michigan snakes on Michigan in Pictures!


Bothered, photo by Aaron Fortin.

Aaron writes that he spent an entire summer tracking 18 of these snakes around the park and watching their habits and where they went throughout the season. Lots of fun trekking through swamps, up hills, through shrubbery, etc. You can see more of his rattlesnake photos (slideshow) including a great shot of the rattler’s fangs. You might also enjoy this Michigan rattlesnake slideshow on Flickr!

The Michigan DNR says that the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) is Michigan’s only venomous snake. They say that Massasaugas are found throughout the Lower Peninsula, but not in the Upper Peninsula and that they are becoming rare in many parts of their former range, due to wetland habitat loss and persecution by humans. After reading Wisconsin’s very excellent page on the Massasauga Rattlesnake I’m also thinking that wild pigs are accounting for some of that drop. Remember that they are classed as an Endangered Species so don’t kill them! Here’s a few tidbits:

  • They say that although drop for drop the massasauga’s venom is more toxic than the timber rattler, with a smaller volume of venom, their bite would probably not cause severe harm to an adult human.
  • The adult massasauga is usually two to three feet in length.
  • “Massasauga” means “great river mouth” in Chippewa, so named because it is usually found in river bottom forests and nearby fields. Massasaugas are characteristic of mesic prairies and lowland places, such as along rivers, lakes, and marshes.
  • The infamous rattles are actually modified epidermal scales with a bony core. Each time the snake sheds its skin a new “button” is added to the rattle, therefore these rattles are not an indication of age, but the amount of times the animal has shed its skin. Massasaugas can shed their skin between 3 and 5 times a year, depending on their health and growth rate. The rattles are believed to serve as warning communications to predators. The rattle produces a buzzing sound similar to that of a grasshopper or cricket.
  • It is interesting to note that rattlesnakes can control the injection of venom when biting. Medical experts familiar with snake bites indicate that up to 60% of all snake bites to humans by poisonous snakes are “dry” bites containing no venom.
  • Massasaugas are preyed upon by raccoons, hogs, skunks, foxes, hawks, and eagles. They in turn will eat cold-blooded prey, such as frogs and other snakes, but they usually prefer warm-blooded prey like mice and voles.

You can learn more about this snake at Wikipedia, Sistrurus catenatus and at Sistrurus catenatus (massasauga rattlesnake) from the University of Michigan Department of Zoology Animal Diversity Web.

Garter Snake

May 13, 2008

Garter Snake by Alanna St. Laurent Photography

Garter Snake, photo by Alanna St. Laurent Photography

The Michigan DNR’s page on the Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) says that the Eastern Garter is Michigan’s most common snake, inhabiting both peninsulas and even urban areas. Wikipedia notes that they are often mistakenly called garden snakes or gardener snakes and the UM Animal Diversity Web entry for garter snakes adds more info and lots of photos and says that although there are very rare cases of allergic reaction from bites from people handling garter snakes, these reptiles deserve their reputation as a harmless and beneficial low-level predator. Be warned if you handle them that their main defense is a stinky secretion!

This picture is part of a cool set of photos from the Bald Mountain Recreation Area (slideshow). Alanna also commented that she thinks snakes are cool. If you do too, you’ll probably enjoy the Snakes of Michigan page from Snaketamers. It lists Michigan’s 18 species of native snakes (with photos). You can also check out the listing of Michigan’s Snakes from the DNR.

Belle Isle Aquarium

Belle Isle Aquarium, photo by MichellePhotos2

Dan Austin of HistoricDetroit.org has an incredibly comprehensive history of the Belle Isle Aquarium. He writes, in part:

Clarence M. Burton, in his history on the city of Detroit, attributes the idea of an aquarium to Rep. David E. Heineman, who had visited Naples, Italy, and studied that city’s Anton Dorhn Aquarium.

…The firm of Nettleton & Kahn drew up the plans for the buildings. The building’s price tag: $165,000 (about $4.06 million today). At the time of its opening, the aquarium was among the six largest in the world. Its high-tech equipment allowed for the keeping of both seawater and fresh-water marine life and the keeping of the right water temperatures in the tanks. The water was recycled through the tanks because, it was said, that fish survive better in water they’ve been in before. Originally, a 8,531-gallon center tank with a railing around it occupied the center of the building. It was topped off with filtered water that snaked through 5 miles of pipes.

Kahn outfitted the interior with sea-green glass tiles to give visitors the feeling that they were in an underwater cavern. Forty-four tanks filled with critters from the Great Lakes and the world’s oceans line the walls. Combined, the tanks contained 5,780 gallons of water. Magnificent pillars and other details compliment the soaring arched ceilings, as high as three stories in the center of the building. A classroom sits near the main entrance.

The front of the slender, brick building features an elaborate Baroque entrance with carvings of dolphins and a grotesque of Neptune, the Roman god of water. In the center is the city’s seal showing the two maidens and the Detroit motto, “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus” — “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.” Below that, the word “aquarium” is carved in capitalized, bold letters. The intricate details are sometimes masked by robust ivy that covers the front of the building.

When opening day finally came on Aug. 18, 1904, Detroiters were champing at the bit to take a peek. By the time dawn rolled around, the line numbered into the thousands and stretched from the aquarium’s front door all the way, across the bridge, back to East Jefferson Avenue. More than 5,000 people visited on the attraction’s first day. Some half a million would gaze into its tanks its first year.

Read on for much more that takes you through nearly a century of operation as one of the largest freshwater collections, decline in the latter part of the 20th century, shuttering in 2005 and re-opening in 2012. Definitely check out his gallery of Belle Isle Aquarium photos too!

Today the aquarium is run by the Belle Isle Conservancy and open on Saturdays from 10 AM – 3 PM with free admission and parking.

View Michelle’s photo bigger and see more in her Detroit slideshow.

PS: The Kahn above is of course noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn, and Michigan in Pictures has a great shot of the same room at the aquarium in 1905.

Standing Guard

Standing Guard, photo by James Marvin Phelps

Today (February 2nd) is Groundhog Day, the day halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The most famous groundhog in the world, Punxsutawney Phil, didn’t see his shadow this morning. Apparently, Michigan has its own official woodchuck weather forecaster, Woody. She lives at the Howell Nature Center and also didn’t  see her shadow. If you put your trust in celebrity rodents, that means we’re in for an early spring.

Michigan has native groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, whistle-pigs, or land-beavers. The University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web entry for Marmota monax (woodchuck) explains in part that:

Woodchucks are stocky in appearance and often stand up on their hind legs, making them look tall. Their pelage varies greatly in color but ranges from gray to cinnamon to dark brown. Their body is covered with white-tipped guard hairs giving them a grizzled appearance. Their paws vary in color from a typical black to dark brown in most subspecies. However, one subspecies has paws that appear pink. Their short bushy tail is often black to dark brown and is 20 to 25% their total body length. They weigh from 2 to 6 kg, range from 415 to 675 mm in total length, and have tails that range from 100 to 160 mm in length. Although males and females are the same color, males are larger than females. Woodchucks have white teeth, which is uncharacteristic of rodents, and a dental formula of 1/1, 0/0, 2/1, 3/3, for a total of 22 teeth. They have rounded ears that can cover the external auditory canal which prevents dirt from entering the ear canal while burrowing.

…Woodchucks are diurnal, solitary animals … Woodchucks are burrowing mammals and generally construct summer and winter dens. These dens generally have several entrances (including an escape hole) and many chambers and tunnels. Woodchucks usually feed twice daily during the summer, with each feeding session lasting no more than 2 hours. They are often found sunning themselves in the middle of the day during summer.

…Abandoned woodchuck dens are used by a number of different species, including rabbits, skunks, raccoons, opossums, foxes, weasels, ground squirrels, river otters, chipmunks, meadow voles, short-tailed shrews, house mice, pine voles, white-footed mice, lizards, snakes, and arthropods.

You can read more and see photos at ADW and also at Wikipedia.

James took this photo at the Lake Erie Metro Park in August of 2009. See it bigger and see more in his Michigan Groundhog slideshow.

More Michigan animals on Michigan in Pictures.

Northern Leopard Frog

Northern Leopard Frog, photo by Adore707.

National Geographic’s Northern Leopard Frog page says that the range of the species:

…is most of northern North America, except on the Pacific Coast. They generally live near ponds and marshes, but will often venture into well-covered grasslands as well, earning them their other common name, the meadow frog.

Leopard frogs will eat just about anything they can fit in their mouths. They sit still and wait for prey to happen by, then pounce with their powerful legs. They eat beetles, ants, flies, worms, smaller frogs, including their own species, and even birds, and garter snakes.

They also note leopard frogs were once the most abundant and widespread frog species in North America, but that declines beginning in the 1970s have significantly reduced their numbers. The Michigan DNR’s Northern Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens) page says that the frogs have had a similar and equally mysterious decline in Michigan, making a sighting of them rare in may parts of the state where they were once common. For more pictures & information, see Rana pipiens at the UM Animal Diversity Web and Northern Leopard Frog on Wikipedia.

See this bigger in Eli’s Nature slideshow.

More Michigan frogs on Michigan in Pictures!

Ski Free in Michigan

January 21, 2010

There's an Upside and a Downside

There’s an Upside and a Downside, photo by farlane.

A friend told me yesterday about a deal that Shell stations are offering to give you a free ski ticket at participating ski resorts when you buy 10 gallons of gas. The details are at skifreedeals.com and the Michigan resorts are:

Every once in a while I get to use one of my own photos. It’s in my contract along with the “no red jellybeans” clause. You can check it out bigger and in my Winter slideshow.

Tons more Michigan skiing info including profiles of these resorts at absolutemichigan.com/Ski.


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