Rattlesnake discovered for first time in county
Live massasaugas never found here before
A new breed of venomous snake has struck in Douglas County.
A team of herpetologists led by Joe Collins, a former Kansas University professor, found two massasaugas — a kind of small rattlesnake — Saturday morning in far southwest Douglas County, the first confirmed sighting of live massasaugas in the county.
Collins said the discovery was cause for caution — not alarm — because massasaugas venom has never been known to kill a human.
“If you get bit, you’ll swell up, be in pain and probably utter some new English word combinations, but you won’t die,” he said.
Massasaugas have been sighted in Osage County in the past, and a few dead ones have been found in Douglas County. Collins said Saturday’s discovery was the first definitive proof that massasaugas live in Douglas County.
Massasaugas are the third venomous snake to be found in Douglas County. Copperheads, whose venom is even less potent than massasaugas, and timber rattlesnakes, whose venom can kill, also are found here.
Collins and his wife, Suzanne, a wildlife photographer, went out Saturday morning looking for proof that massasaugas live in Douglas County for their upcoming book, “Amphibians, Turtles and Reptiles of Kansas.”
The team found the pair of snakes, both males about two feet long, under a rock about 40 feet from the home of John and Bessie Bauer, who live about three miles east of Overbrook.
Gerold Sneegas, a wildlife photographer who lives nearby, lifted the large rock to uncover the snakes.
“I was surprised how close they were to the edge of the rock,” Sneegas said. “When I saw that, I realized I should have put gloves on.”
John Bauer said he had seen the snakes before but wasn’t sure what type they were. He said he hadn’t decided whether to kill the snakes. He knew they ate mice, which often get into his house, but was concerned for the safety of his dogs.
“I wasn’t worried about myself,” he said. “I don’t walk around barefoot or with sandals on out there. I wear boots, and they’re not going to get you if you don’t harass them.”
Bauer said he planned to move the rocks away from his house.
“The wife is hot after me to get them moved,” he said.
The massasauga — pronounced “moss-ah-SAUG-wah” — is found throughout the eastern half of Kansas. It has a gray or light brown head and body and has a small pit on each side of its head between the eye and nostril.
They typically like open prairie, which makes southwestern Douglas County appealing to them, Collins said. He said massasaugas may find their way to the Baker Wetlands but he doubts they’ll ever enter the city of Lawrence, as some copperheads have.
After Suzanne Collins photographs them, Joe Collins plans to euthanize them and have them frozen for scientific research purposes at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, where he is an adjunct curator.
Joe Collins also is an adjunct professor with the Kansas Biological Survey and director of the Center for North American Herpetology. He said he’d been bitten by four venomous snakes during his years as a herpetologist, including once by the copperhead he smuggled into his parents’ basement when he was 13.
As he played with a rattling massasauga in his front yard Saturday afternoon, Collins said the latest discovery was a major breakthrough in the research for his book.
“Suzanne and I have looked a long time for them,” he said. “We’re excited.”