SRU students research public’s rattlesnake awareness



The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is the subject of an elicitation study being conducted by a pair of Slippery Rock University graduate students.

May 18, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - If you're walking through grassland and see a rattlesnake, here is what you shouldn't do: scream, poke it with a stick or make any sudden movements. Just calmly back away.

That's the advice of two Slippery Rock University graduate students who are researching public awareness about the venomous eastern massasauga rattlesnake, which lives locally.

Larissa Cassano, a park and resource management major from Venetia, and Sara Isacco, an environmental education major from Butler, are interviewing adults who live within a 12-mile radius of the state-owned Jennings Environmental Learning Education Center, about what they know about the snake. Jennings maintains a 20-acre prairie for the massasauga and the researchers are targeting those who hike, walk their dog or take classes in the area.

By documenting the public's perceptions about the snake, students said Jennings would have reliable data that could better inform their educational information.

"Our work is an elicitation study, so we're focused on what people think and perceive about these creatures," Cassano said. "In essence, we're also raising awareness about this creature and the situation it is in."

sara isacco


Cassano and Isacco will join faculty advisor Becky Thomas, assistant professor of parks and recreation, to present their research at the North American Congress for Conservation Biology July 17-20 in Madison, Wisconsin.

The massasauga lives in Midwestern North American, from Ontario as far south as northern Mexico. About 30 inches long, the gray and tan snake is listed as endangered in Pennsylvania.

The biggest misconception about the massasauga, Cassano said, is many people think the snake is hunting them.

"People might not know the warning signs when the snake feels threatened," Cassano said. "I also think a lot of people don't really know what to do when they come across a snake in general. Being loud and making a scene is not to your benefit around a snake. Honestly, the attitudes seem to be rooted in misconceptions or lack of information. Sometimes people are influenced as children - maybe an adult killed a snake in front of them and that experience has shaped their feelings."

Cassano conceded most people are leery of snakes, especially those with venom.

"Sadly, this is true," she said. "In general, people are drawn to those furry animals with big eyes. Most of the fear is based on preconceived notions, misinterpreted information or simple lack of information. People fear what they don't know or don't understand."

In reality, rattlesnake bites are rare and not always lethal. A fatal rattlesnake bite hadn't occurred in Pennsylvania for 25 years before a 39-year-old man was bitten at a campsite in Elk County in summer 2015. He was killed by a timber rattlesnake.

Cassano said she would love to see a massasauga close up.

"I have visited Jennings and seen some burrows but never a specimen," she said. "If I came across one while hiking, I would slowly back away or go around the snake giving it plenty of space. I would also wear closed-toed shoes and long pants while hiking. The snakes are not known to be aggressive, and if you give them space, then odds are good it will continue to go on its way."

As they act as a communication bridge between the public and parks, the researchers said they ultimately want local residents to realize that parks and wildlife are valuable resources that should be preserved.

"Parks are managed to provide educational learning environments and opportunities to witness nature at work," Cassano said. "Aside from common wildlife, Jennings is a spot for many special plants and creatures, but there are many more people who need to be aware of the uniqueness and subsequently how to safely and respectfully interact with the park."

Isacco said she has studied what kinds of programs would change peoples' attitude toward the "uncharismatic creatures."

"It was found the most beneficial way was to approach kids early," she said.

Isacco, a fifth-grade teacher in the Butler School District, said the research experience would provide lessons for her students.

"This kind of research experience as well as connections to Jennings, allow for opportunities for myself, my family and my students," she said.

Wil Taylor, a 1994 SRU graduate, manages the 300-acre Jennings property, which provides environmental education and offers five miles of trails on its property, including a half-mile trail through the prairie.

Taylor said rattlesnakes bite and inject venom to kill prey or when provoked.

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