The mere mention of a rattlesnake may bring about thoughts of a dangerous coiled creature hissing and ready to strike anyone that approaches with its poisonous venom.
There is a species of rattlesnake, the Eastern Massasauga, which is native to our area that makes the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore its home.
However, this revelation should not strike fear in the hearts of Dunes visitors.
"Rattlesnakes have a variety of temperaments, some species are more aggressive than others. The Massasauga is docile. They tend to be more on the gentle end of the spectrum," said Ralph Grundel, Research Ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "Even if you walked right by a Massasauga, it generally wouldn't strike."
The Massasauga, which live in the upper Northeast third of the United States and Southeastern Canada, were once plentiful in this region. But, over the past 150 years -- with the drainage of wetlands and the development of the land -- the snake became practically nonexistent.
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"There are historic records that the Massasauga was once abundant in the area reaching from Gary to Michigan City," Grundel said. "It is not endangered yet, but it is in a gray area right now. The numbers are definitely thin and there should be concern for the survival of the Massasauga."
In 2002, a one-year study was conducted in 2002 by the U.S. Geological Survey to see if there were any present in the Dunes National Park.
A combination of three techniques were used to search for the Massasauga. The first was to identify habitat areas and go out and physically look for the snake.
The second technique was to use cover boards. Snakes like to go under these objects. The boards provide good thermal habitats.
Barrier fences also were set up with traps at the end. These were large funnel-shaped cages made from screen.
"We used these three techniques and looked and looked, and looked. The bottom line is that we were almost to the very end of our year-long study when one showed up in a trap," Grundel said. "It was a juvenile snake."
More recently, someone in the park found a shed skin with a rattle. There also are occasional reports of sightings.
"Of course we try to gather information and evaluate the credibility of these reports. My gut feeling is that there is a low population here, maybe in the dozens," Grundel said. "I wish we had more sightings.
"Other types of snakes will react and you will know that they are there. But the Massasauga is a shy guy. Their low numbers and their lack of aggression makes them a little hard to find. It is a little bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack."