Restoration Ecology of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus Catenatus) in Western Pennsylvania. Emphasis on Prey Availability, Behavioral Ecology, and Thermal Biology



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I studied the ecology and behavior of Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes (Sistrurus catenatus) at a restored habitat conservation easement site in western Pennsylvania from April – August 2021. Terrestrial vertebrate surveys revealed a quality level of biodiversity at the site (nine amphibian species, 10 reptile species, and 11 mammal species), with 40% of the sampled species having previously been reported in the diet of S. catenatus, demonstrating adequate prey availability. While radio-tracking S. catenatus, a male-male combat event was opportunistically observed and captured on video. The video was used to describe, quantify (frequency and total duration), and analyze all behaviors that occurred during the event. While monitoring a female (MS-01), I first encountered a male S. catenatus (MS-04) in close proximity (0.5 m) (7-31-2021). Mate accompaniment of MS-01 by MS-04 was followed by male-male combat between MS-04 and a newly found male S. catenatus (MS-05) (8-1-2021). This mating system culminated with MS-05 copulating with the female (MS-01) (8-2-2021). Successfully observing the full progression allowed me to accurately describe the combat event and subsequently analyze and compare the combat behaviors displayed by MS-04 and MS-05 with respect to the outcome of the combat; MS-05 winning and copulating with MS-01. To understand thermal biology, I used 12-hour continuous monitoring of behavior and Tb (body temperature) of three S. catenatus on six separate days in July and August 2021 to investigate the association of body position and Tb. I found no significant differences between body temperatures of S. catenatus monitored during the six trial days. However, there was a significant effect of snake body position on body temperature. These results provide insight into S. catenatus thermoregulatory behavior and the impacts that snake body positions have on body temperatures of free-ranging individuals. My work furthers the understanding of the ecology and behavior of S. catenatus, particularly regarding male-male combat in this species. Additionally, because these studies took place within a restored habitat site, my results provide information on the restoration ecology of S. catenatus and consequently can be used to inform future conservation efforts for this species.



Biology, General