While I see a quite a few massasauga rattlesnakes every year, I have still yet to see a melanistic one. Melanism is a genetic trait that causes individuals to express a higher amount of melanin (dark pigment) from the melanocytes in the skin. Some species, such as garter snakes, hognose snakes and massasauga rattlesnakes for example, are known for individuals who are melanistic, or basically completely black. Interestingly, the young animals are often normally patterned and they darken as they age. Usually, one or two dark individual will turn up here and there, but for unknown reasons, some populations have a much higher percentage of melanistic individuals. For massausagas, NE Ohio is known for this. I have been lucky enough to see melanistic garter snakes (I blogged about it here previously) and hognoses, but am still searching for my first jet black massasauga.
Eastern Garter Snake Thamnophis sirtalis, melanistic
Eastern Hognose Snake Heterodon platirhinos
I had yet to actually go to one of the places known for a high number of melanistic saugas, and I just hoped and figured if I continued to spend time in the field and observe the animals one would turn up. This spring I spent a bunch of time targeting the snakes near their hibernaculums in the spring. Imagine my great suprise when I finally saw this...
near melanistic Massasauga Rattlesnake Sistrurus catenatus
The chocolate hues of this snake were very striking.
Nick Scobel had mentioned he had seen a fully black melanistic animal from nearby a few days earlier. I spent some time exploring the close area a few days later and spotted this animal from a few meters away.
Ahh so close. We are fairly certain this is the same animal that Nick saw, it was likely just dirtier previously.
Now I had the fever. I heard about a volunteer opportunity at a great fen system in Michigan with 75% melanistic sauga population. I was able to make it one of the days before I left for Arizona and I was ready for my black swamp snapper. Of course, my group finds only patterned individuals, while the other groups found only melanistics...
So unfortunately, this quest is not over. I could have photographed some of the other animals found that day, but my heart wasn't in it without finding them in the field. There is still some time left, but work is busy, so I have a feeling this goal will be carrying over to 2012. Alas, how fast the field season passes you by...