Massasauga Rattlesnake

An Informative Guide to the Massasauga Rattlesnake

When people picture a rattlesnake, they generally think of the diamondback and not the shy massasauga rattlesnake. This snake’s name means “big river mouth” in Chippewa, and is named for the type of areas it is commonly found in, namely bogs and marshes. Although the massasauga rattlesnake was once plentiful in numbers, human interference has caused its numbers to dwindle, and it is now being considered for addition on the endangered species list.

Physical Description

The massasauga rattlesnake is a thick-bodied viper that can range in length from 50 – 100 cm once it reaches adulthood. It should also be noted that the male massasauga is generally longer than the female.

The majority of their body is gray or brown, marked with distinguishing dark blotches that run down the length of their back. Their tails have striking dark stripes that are often outlined with a lighter hue of their body color, and their bellies are usually a mottled black color. Although in the wild they are often confused with the eastern timber rattlesnake, their tails differ in that the timber rattlesnake’s tail is almost completely black; not striped.

Habitat

Massasauga rattlers prefer to live in temperate environments that are damp, such as fens, marshes, swamps, and bottomland forests. They remain in their homes from late August to spring, but during the summer months they prefer to travel to drier habits like crops and grasslands.

This species of rattlesnake can be found in various areas of North America, spanning from the southern regions of Canada to Arizona and the Gulf Coast of Texas all the way to eastern Pennsylvania.

Breeding Habits

These rattlesnakes prefer to mate during the spring and fall months, followed by a gestational period of approximately 3.5 months.  While the babies are still inside their mother, she will nurture and protect them fiercely. The mother snake will then seek out an abandoned mammal burrow or other dry private spot to have her young in because, unlike some snakes, the massasauga rattlesnakes are born live and not in eggs.

The newly born snakes will remain in the den with their mother for a few days, but will soon disperse and go their own ways. This is not a yearly event for the mother snake; females can only reproduce once every 2 years.

Behavior and Feeding Habits

The massasauga rattlesnake prefers a solitary life. Although they are fairly active throughout the warmer months, they will hibernate alone or by themselves in mammal burrows during cold, winter months. When they weather turns again they will migrate to warmer areas, but they always return to the same hibernation spot every following year.

Because they live in predominantly wet areas, these snakes are excellent swimmers. Like most reptiles, however, they prefer to spend the majority of their time basking on rocks and higher ground.

 

Massasauga rattlesnakes are carnivorous and mostly eat small rodents like mice and shrews. They will occasionally eat small birds, insects, frogs, and even other snakes as well. While hunting, they usually strike their prey, injecting them with venom. They then wait for the prey to die before they eat them. Certain prey that is too weak to fight back, such as baby mice and frogs, will sometimes be eaten without injecting any venom at all.

Threats

Although massasauga rattlesnakes are efficient hunters, they do have their fair share of predators as well. Hawks, larger snakes, foxes and raccoons are all capable of killing these snakes. Additionally, some animals may inadvertently kill them by trampling on them.

By far, though, the biggest threat to the massasauga rattlesnake is humans. Numbers of these snakes are continually dropping because of human interference with their natural habitat. In addition to this, in the 1970s some states paid rewards for killing rattlesnakes. Many people believe the latter may be the main reason these snakes are in danger.