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A man’s quest to save rattlesnakes from skin-eating fungus

How an unemployed pastry chef became a self-taught rattlesnake expert and launched a crusade to save the creatures from the fungus that could spell their doom.

Timber rattlesnake.

James Condon

Timber rattlesnake.

HELLO, MY NAME IS JAMES, and I’m obsessed with timber rattlesnakes.

I need the 12-step program,” James Condon announces to the wind and trees and corrugations of the southeastern Blue Hills, a wry smile creeping across his face. For the past six years, Condon, a 53-year-old unemployed pastry chef with a ponytail long enough to be bound in three spots, has been combing the Blue Hills for rattlesnakes, one of Massachusetts’s most enigmatic and most endangered reptiles.

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No one knows the rattlesnakes in this place better than Condon. He’s discovered where they den, shed, bask, and birth, where they move out, hang out, and dry out. Other critical activities, like mating and feeding, are not as predictable (unless, of course, you’re a rattlesnake). “Be alert,” he warns me as we bushwhack over a stony summit thickly covered with shrubs. “They could be anywhere.” My steps are measured, for the unexpected sound of a rattlesnake is a full-body experience.

Condon visits the Hills four or five times a week during “snake season,” which used to be mid-April to mid-October but more recently has expanded into the winter months, ice and snow notwithstanding. He visually examines all the snakes he encounters, photographs them, and catalogs the digital images so that he can recognize individual snakes by their unique banding patterns, the way a cetacean biologist identifies a humpbacked whale by the distinctive scallop edging of its flippers. With the permission of Tom French of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Condon carefully and skillfully weighs and measures a select few snakes and marks their rattles with a dot of nail polish. (Rattlesnakes are venomous, of course, but Condon’s never been bitten.) He also speculates, laments, and sometimes rants and raves about the object of his obsession, for the rattlesnakes in the Blue Hills are in trouble, and Condon knows it.

***

James Condon has educated himself on timber rattlesnakes, kept tabs on them, and become their advocate in the Blue Hills.

Cheryl Miller

James Condon has educated himself on timber rattlesnakes, kept tabs on them, and become their advocate in the Blue Hills.

IT’S A SUNNY Saturday morning in early April, well before the full awakening of spring. Condon emerges from the woods and meets me at a narrow pullout along Route 28, a busy two-lane road that cleaves the Blue Hills. This is the largest open space within 35 miles of Boston (besides the ocean), a chain of 22 rocky knobs of 450-million-year-old bluish bedrock that geologists call Quincy granite. The Blue Hills’ glacier-scrubbed summits are purported to be the highest ground along the Atlantic Coast between Maine and Mexico. When you’re flying into Logan Airport from the west, the Blue Hills stand out, a narrow, emerald island garroted and Balkanized by highways and anchored in an expanding suburban slipstream. If you’re driving south on Interstate 93, which curls around the southern end of the Hills before merging into Interstate 95, they do not stand out — at least not until you’re on top of them, which makes turning onto the Route 28 cloverleaf a challenge.

The trees are leafless, the buds promising. Skunk cabbage is barely up, and spicebush is in flower, small, thin-petaled, and yellow, like dollhouse confetti. Condon leads me off-trail. Everywhere we go, I hear traffic, which may be the heart of the rattlesnake’s problem. They can’t leave. It’s as though the snakes live in a forested zoo, a spacious 7,000-acre zoo, granted, but the roads that section the park restrict them to less than a quarter of that total. Unfortunately, that may not be large enough to prevent an isolated rattlesnake population from inbreeding, with the consequent loss of genetic diversity, often expressed as a compromised immune system. Some experts are concerned that in the case of the Blue Hills timber rattlesnakes, this immune system cannot fend off a skin-eating fungal pathogen called Chrysosporium ophiodiicola.

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Condon lobbies for the rattlesnakes day and night, sending salvos of electronic diatribes to anyone who’ll read them. His zeal makes him a pest to many conservation biologists and wildlife veterinarians—some of them treat him like a pariah. Because of Condon’s badgering, though, Tom French, the director of the Natural Heritage Endangered Species Program, charged with preserving biodiversity in the state, commissioned the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence to study the issue in 2011. The jury is still deliberating whether the issue is genetically compromised snakes, or the fungus, or some other threat. Everyone in the closeted world of Massachusetts rattlesnakes has an enlightened opinion.

Is it simply that inbreeding has diminished the snakes’ genetic diversity and crippled their immune systems? Or could this be the tip of a much larger toxic iceberg? Could heavy-metal poisoning have lowered the efficiency of their immune systems? Or possibly pesticides? Maybe plastics? Or has climate change triggered the rampant growth of a ubiquitous soil fungus at the expense of the isolated, inbred rattlesnakes? There are no answers yet. In fact, some biologists think nothing’s wrong — that the snakes’ facial lesions are just hibernation blisters caused by moisture trapped against the skin while the snake sleeps through the winter, and that the blisters simply dry out and slough off during the summer. To find the answer, Roger Williams zoo veterinarian Mike McBride needs more samples — he’s looked at only 13 infected snakes. With the blessings of French and French’s counterparts in Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire, where the lesions have also been detected, the zoo has applied for a regional grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to expand its study. (Rattlesnakes are extinct in Rhode Island and Maine.)

The heads of these three timber rattlesnakes all show signs of the skin-eating fungus “Chrysosporium ophiodiicola.”

james condon

The heads of these three timber rattlesnakes all show signs of the skin-eating fungus “Chrysosporium ophiodiicola.”

McBride feels the crunch of limited funding and limited time, but also believes that the wide range of opinions from snake enthusiasts — from the professional to the rank amateur — makes it hard to differentiate between storytelling and reality. “We want to approach this in a very standardized and scientific way,” he tells me.

When I ask French about Condon’s role in all this, he is direct. “James is like herding cats,” French says. “He’s got passion. He’s got time, apparently. He feels so strongly, he drives everybody nuts, because he’s got the expertise on the one hand with just enough information to be dangerous on the other hand. He really, really needs to leave the science to the people who’ve got degrees.”

For his part, Condon feels the engines of authority are at low throttle. This past winter, he saw fungus-ravaged rattlesnakes outside their dens basking in shards of cool sunlight. This spring, he’s spent twice as much time searching for snakes as last spring and found half the number of them. “The time for discussing the fungus has long passed. And if they wait much longer, the time for action might be past.” 

***

CONDON AND I climb up and down the Blue Hills through woods of maple, oak, hemlock, and pine, across a plateau, around a swamp green with Atlantic white cedar, over a summit dense with blueberry and scrub oak, past innumerable granite outcrops, blue-gray welts amid the soft, leaf-littered earth. Up here, the sun heats the rocks that warm the rattlesnakes. In fact, sun time is crucial to a timber rattlesnake’s survival in Massachusetts; basking on exposed rock is as nourishing and life-supporting as eating a chipmunk or a white-footed mouse. Warm rocks sustain the snakes, particularly in spring and fall, when the air is stiff with chill. Females swollen with embryos lounge all summer on the rocks like sun-seeking coeds. Lately the snakes are also sunning on the rocks in winter, when frost can penetrate deep into the ground; snakes plagued by Chrysosporium sunbathe even when it snows. Sadly, when rattlesnakes squeeze down fissures in the stress-fractured bedrock to pass the winter in subterranean retreats — the proverbial snake dens — they could be cozying up against the very source of the fungus: a cool, moist crevice.

  On an afternoon commute home from Boston in 2003, Condon saw his first rattlesnake — a big, yellow carcass in the breakdown lane of Interstate 93. “It took me four days [of passing the snake] before I realized what the hell I was seeing.” Then, a few years later, under the weight of the July sun, he stumbled upon an itinerant male in search of a mate. “I followed that snake for four or five hours, and it was OK as long as I didn’t get too close.” He became hooked. He started to read extensively about timber rattlesnakes and to correspond with experts. Eventually, Condon appointed himself the snakes’ caretaker in the Blue Hills. He’s chased poachers (a longstanding problem); educated hikers, bikers, and state employees; supplied snake sheds for a DNA research project; and cut down trees to open up basking sites. Looking to be more scientific, he has begun to take copious notes.

Condon once tried to resuscitate a copperhead (the other venomous snake of Massachusetts) that another snake, a black racer, had swallowed then regurgitated. Condon performed ophidian CPR, intuitively blowing gently down the copperhead’s throat (regardless, the animal died). When he noticed a hiker was repeatedly sunbathing 50 yards from a popular snake-basking site, Condon tucked a large snakeskin and an admonishing note in with the sunblock and towel the guy stored in a zippered plastic bag behind a log. “I never saw him again.” Last summer, when a mountain biker reported a pile of newborn rattlesnakes next to a popular trail, Condon confirmed the sighting for Tom French, who notified the Department of Conservation and Recreation — the agency that manages the Blue Hills Reservation. The trail was closed the next day.

Rattlesnake aficionados are fond of pointing out rocks and logs where they’ve found snakes in the past, and they recall even the most minute details of each encounter as though thumbing through a photo album. At the rocky summit of a hill, on our early April hike, Condon shows me the granite slab where he once saw two rattlesnakes luxuriating on warm rocks.

“Were they basking?”

“No. They were studying Japanese.”

***

RATTLESNAKES have been in decline in Massachusetts since Colonial times, when communities such as Medfield, Dedham, North Brookfield, and Canton paid a bounty for every snake tail brought to the town clerk. In 1680, Westborough organized posses to kill snakes, and in 1740, Arlington appointed a day for a “general snake hunt and extermination.” Historically, according to French, there may have been 15 rattlesnake dens in the Blue Hills. There are far fewer now, all apparently underpopulated and many, maybe all, affected by Chrysosporium. One den was obliterated in the 1960s during the building of Route 128. Today, there may be fewer than 100 of the snakes left in the Blue Hills. The killing of rattlesnakes has long been a problem. “We have so many people in the Boston metro area that hate snakes,” French told me one afternoon. People of authority — a Milton police officer, a State Police officer, a military employee at the old Nike missile site, a Boy Scout leader, all people in positions of responsibility to “protect” the public — have killed rattlesnakes in the Blue Hills. Now that they’re endangered, it’s illegal to kill timber ratttlesnakes in Massachusetts, unless done in self-defense.

A healthy timber rattlesnake shows no signs of fungus.

james condon

A healthy timber rattlesnake shows no signs of fungus.

Timber rattlesnakes are not aggressive, and experts say they pose little risk — French says there hasn’t been a fatality from a rattlesnake bite since Colonial times. When Condon finds a rattlesnake sunning itself outside a den, I sense in the instant the wildness of this place. Within moments, however, the sound of a far-off siren interrupts the silence.

Condon knows this snake. He’s been watching him bask for a few weeks. Together, we circle the snake, studying his every breath. He neither rattles nor attempts to leave. Northern timber rattlesnakes come in two color phases: black and yellow. This one is a yellow 32-inch-long male, mustard-colored with chocolate bands, each band set off from the yellow by an off-white border. The tail is coal black, and the hallmark of the species, the hollow rattle, has nine segments that taper toward the tip. Every time a rattlesnake sheds, it adds a new segment to its rattles, a self-replicating instrument. Because most rattlesnakes shed once or twice a year, this snake might be 5 or 6 years old. The telltale sign of the fungus, skin that looks wet and raw, can now be seen on the left side of his face, along both jaws back to the neck, behind the right eye, and inside the left nostril.

Condon pulls out a laser thermometer. The air is 55 degrees, the rocks 68, and the heat-seeking snake 79. When the rattlesnake exhales, his crest of spines sticks out and his flaccid skin drapes a rake of ribs. “No one wants to check this one out,” Condon sighs.

“Do you have a name for him?”

“No. I’m afraid he’ll die. I can’t take it.”

Not 10 feet from the basking rattlesnake, Condon finds a snakelet, barely 10 inches long, born late last summer — evident because its rattle has only one segment or “button.” The young snake is dead. Red ants swarm its face but haven’t broken through the skin. Condon had seen the baby basking just three days before. Its nose is a crusty red. Festering lesions stand out on its face, and the inside of its mouth is the color of fruit punch, raw and ugly.

Condon calls Alexandra Echandi, a natural resource specialist for the Department of Conservation and Recreation, who’s working in her office in the Hills, on his cellphone. “Bad news,” he reports to a sympathetic Echandi. “I found a dead snake, actually. A little one, it’s a baby. . . . Do you think the zoo might want him? All right, he’s all yours. I’m sad. . . . There was another sick snake there, too, that I’ve seen a few times. He was up again today ... the one that nobody wants to look at.”

We walk the little snake to the pullout, where Echandi trades Condon a box of granola bars for the specimen. They mention that there will be a meeting at the zoo in several weeks to discuss Chrysosporium and the direction of fungal research.

“Are you invited?” I ask.

“Are you kidding? What kind of question is that?”

A SHRINKING POPULATION

Though they ranged more widely in Massachusetts in Colonial times, today timber rattlesnakes are confined to three sections of the state: Besides the Blue Hills, rattlesnakes still occur in isolated populations in the Connecticut River Valley and in the foothills of the Berkshires. They are extinct in Rhode Island (as of 1970) and Maine (as of sometime in the 19th century), and they’re reduced to one population in New Hampshire and two in Vermont. In Connecticut, timber rattlesnakes are restricted to the central and northwestern corner of the state.  

Ted Levin’s next book, America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, will be published in 2014. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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