Columbus Zoo celebrates rare snake birth, a conservation success-sss

By Alissa Widman Neese - The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium announced the arrival of a rare, slithering bundle of joy on Wednesday.

An eastern massasauga rattlesnake gave birth to seven snakelets two weeks ago, making the zoo one of just five facilities accredited by the nonprofit Association of Zoos and Aquariums to have successfully bred the species in captivity.

The snake is endangered in the state of Ohio and is threatened nationwide, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It is also one of just three venomous snakes found in the state — though don’t worry if you live in central Ohio, because they don’t live here (except at the zoo).

The mother snake arrived in Columbus from the Toronto Zoo in 2016. The father arrived from Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo in 2018. The birth happened on Jan. 20.

The pair aren’t named, though some of the zoo’s snakes are, spokeswoman Jen Fields said.

While many snakes are known for laying eggs, eastern massasauga rattlesnakes give birth to live young, usually five to 20 at once. The other zoos that have successfully bred the species are the Buffalo Zoo, the Detroit Zoo, the Saint Louis Zoo and the Staten Island Zoo, Fields said.

Wild snakelets typically go off on their own quickly, which is why, after just a couple days, the Columbus Zoo separated its seven new snakelets from their mother. They’re now living in a behind-the-scenes habitat where zoo employees can observe them.

They’ve already hit major milestones, including enjoying their first meal and shedding their first layer of skin, the zoo said in its Wednesday announcement.

Each time they shed skin, their rattle grows. Eventually, the older portions of fully grown rattles get weak and break off.

Each massasauga rattlesnake has a unique pattern on its body that will stay the same for its entire life. They are typically gray or light brown with large, light-edged chocolate brown spots on their backs and small spots on their sides. They can grow up to 3 feet long and can be identified by their triangular heads and vertical pupils.

The snakes live in prairie wetlands, shrub swamps, marshes and moist grasslands. It’s rare to spot them in the wild. They’re native to Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada.

The draining of wetlands for development has negatively impacted the species.

Since 2009, the zoo has been participating in a study involving other zoos, universities and wildlife agencies analyzing wild snakes at a site in Michigan to better understand eastern massasauga rattlesnakes.

The Association of Zoos and Aquarium includes more than 230 accredited institutions in the U.S. and abroad, including the Columbus Zoo. Using Species Survival Plans, member zoos track the genetic history of animals and plan coordinators recommend the best mates for breeding — in this case, the Columbus Zoo’s snakes.

Ultimately, the goal is to maintain genetic diversity, which keeps animals healthy. The plans also reduce the need to enhance family trees with genes from wild animals.

By Alissa Widman Neese

The Columbus Dispatch (TNS)

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