A picturesque island in the middle of a reservoir in central Massachusetts might soon be hiding a deadly secret. The isolated, uninhabited location has been branded the ideal place to start a colony of venomous timber rattlesnakes. Covered in undisturbed forest with boulder fields and plenty of prey, Mount Zion Island is considered prime rattlesnake habitat, with the move aimed at helping the species cling on in the state, where it is almost extinct. Locals are concerned by one thing: the snakes can swim.
This worry held by some residents is, however, misplaced. Run by the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, project director Tom French has said he’s received numerous emails and phone calls from locals who fear the snakes will escape. “People are afraid that we're going to put snakes in a place of public use and that they are going to breed like rabbits and spread over the countryside and kill everybody,” explains French to the Associated Press. While it is true that the snakes can swim, this doesn’t mean the region will suddenly become inundated with them.
Mount Zion Island, which is the largest in Quabbin Reservoir (pictured), is considered prime rattlesnake habitat. D.R.Davis/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
This is because the likelihood of the reptiles surviving off the island and around populated areas is slim. When the snakes undergo “burmation,” which is the reptile equivalent of hibernation, they need boulder fields or limestone crevices to curl up in. According to the state agency, sites like these are rare in and around the local towns. This means that even if one of the snakes were to make a break for it and swim to the mainland, it is unlikely to survive the winter.
Not only that, but snake attacks are incredibly rare, and the fear of these beautiful creatures is completely unfounded. French notes that there have been no documented deaths caused by rattlesnakes in the state since colonial times, despite the small surviving populations of reptiles living on heavily used public lands. In fact, the snakes need to worry far more about humans than we do about them.
The reason behind setting up a colony is due in part to the persecution the animals have and continue to face. Once widespread across the entire state of Massachusetts, there are now thought to be fewer than 200 timber rattlesnakes living in fragmented populations. While being killed by humans plays a part, the decline is mainly down to habitat destruction as well as deaths on the roads. This is why the undeveloped and uninhabited island in the Quabbin Reservoir is seen as such a perfect site, where the snakes can exist without the human pressure.
The snakes will first be bred at the zoo in Providence, Rhode Island, until they reach around 1.5 meters (5 foot) in length. They will then be released with radio transmitters into the wild on the island, where healthy rodent and chipmunk populations are thought to be able to eventually support around 150 of the reptiles. While the initial news and reports of the project caused a little backlash against the agency, that initial fear now seems to by dying down. Perhaps it’s time, then, to call Samuel L Jackson off.