Yesterday, I thought I was dragging my brother out for a hike, but it was really Kirk who dragged me all over the hills and through the woods of Klondike Park in Missouri where I am visiting family.
There are two things to know about the hike: One, my grandfather used to work at Klondike when it was a rock quarry. And, two, I haven’t seen a snake since moving to Hawaii almost 15 years ago.
The former point explains why my brother traipsed from one end of the park to the other. He’s a historian and wanted, I figured, to find the “crusher,” where Grandpa worked and lost his foot when a boulder fell cattiwampus off a truck.
The latter explains my reaction when a snake sprung to life and slithered across my feet.
We don’t have snakes in Hawaii.
The Massasauga is a rattlesnake that grows up to three feet in length with dark brown blotches on its short, thick body. Its head and the pupils in its eyes are diamond shaped. Like other venomous snakes, it has “pits” on the sides of its head.
The Massasauga is not the snake that crawled across my boots. But it could have been.
The rattler emerges from dormancy in mid-April and favors marshy areas and moist prairies. An efficient predator, the Massasauga preys on voles, mice and other rodents, plus smaller snakes.
If I were in Hawaii today, I would have probably signed up to monitor an 11-day-old Hawaiian monk seal pup, because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service observes the third Friday in May as Endangered Species Day. It’s another way to promote awareness of our nation’s endangered species and their habitats. Because I am not at home with the endangered marine mammal nearby, I decided to educate myself on the endangered species where I am staying for the week—Missouri. That’s how I discovered the Massasauga.
The Massasauga is protected by the state of Missouri and a candidate for federal protection as an endangered species. In addition to the snake, there are birds, beetles, turtles, and a whole lotta fish protected by the state and/or federal governments. Even, a bunch of mussels. Plants, bats, a skunk, and the grey wolf make Missouri’s list. And the Least tern, a bird I normally associate with the ocean, that arrives in Missouri in late April and nests on sandbars along the Mississippi River. It departs when chicks fledge in August and September. No one seems to know where this species overwinters. Now, that’s a question I’d like to see answered.
Wherever you are right now, I encourage you to get to know the local endangered species.
My brother and I think the friendly snake that said hello to us on the trail yesterday was a Blue racer. After looking through the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website, it could have also been an Eastern yellow-bellied racer. Honestly, I didn’t get a good look at it. I also didn’t get a photograph. My feet and arms froze. But my vocal cords did not. Alas, vocal cords cannot take pictures. At least, mine cannot. Mine did not. Not yesterday.
At lunch today, I told my friend Julie about the Massasauga—how it’s on the Missouri endangered species list and how it keeps the population of small rodents in check. She pointed out that there were plenty of other non-venomous snakes that ate voles and mice.
And that made me wonder: Would it matter if the Massasauga went extinct? What about the Least tern? Or the Hawaiian monk seal? Does it make a difference if there are other species filling the same ecological niche? What if we don’t know the exact role an endangered species plays in our ecosystem? What then?
What do you think about endangered species? Should we continue to try and save them? Or just let them go extinct? I’d like to know what you think.