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Species Spotlight: Massassauga Rattlesnake

The Massassauga rattlesnake is native to Ontario and North-Eastern USA. In Ontario, there are two populations: the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River population, which is classed as threatened under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, and the Carolinian population, which is classed as endangered. The snake is primarily found in two locations – on the Eastern side of Georgian Bay, and on the Bruce Peninsula. The Bruce Peninsula population occurs from around Wiarton to the tip of the Peninsula, and perhaps on to Manitoulin Island.

The Massassauga is a distinctive snake with a triangular head and a grey or dark brown body dotted with darker saddle-shaped marks. It can grow up to a metre long and has a small rattle at the end of its tail, which makes a buzzing sound when shaken. Adult snakes shed their skin two or three times per year, and each time they do so they add an extra “button” to their rattle. Although the Massassauga is Ontario’s only rattlesnake, the Eastern foxsnake and Eastern milksnake mimic the Massassauga by quickly vibrating the tips of their tails.

The Massassauga lives in a range of habitats including tall grass prairie, bogs, marshes, shorelines, forests, and alvars. Wherever they are, they need open areas where they can warm themselves in the sun. In the winter, they hibernate underground where they can remain above the water table but below the frost line, such as in crevices in the bedrock, sphagnum swamps, tree root cavities, and animal burrows. Sometimes they will share their hibernation sites with other hibernating snakes, amphibians, or even crayfish.

The diet of the Massassauga includes small mammals, fish, lizards, frogs, and even other snakes. It has the ability to separate its jaw into two segments which allows it to consume prey three times bigger than its head. Breeding occurs every 2-3 years and the females give birth to between 8 and 20 live young.

While it is a venomous snake (the only one in Ontario), it will only bite in self-defence if threatened or harassed. Massassaugas are very shy and prefer to hide from their enemies. If threatened, they will first shake their tail as a warning, and only strike as a last resort. Only two deaths resulting from a Massassauga bite have ever been recorded in Ontario, and both of these occurred more than 50 years ago.

Despite this, persecution by humans is a significant threat to this snake as people deliberately kill it out of fear and dislike. Other threats include road mortality and urban development, cottage development, and expanding road systems, which destroy or fragment the snake’s habitat. The Massassauga was once found throughout Southern Ontario, but has experienced significant declines.

What can you do?

• Report a sighting to the Natural Heritage Information Centre and/or the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas. Photographs with specific locations and mapping coordinates are helpful!
• Watch for snakes crossing the road, especially between May and September.
• Learn about snakes and help dispel the myths!
• Never deliberately harm, kill, capture, or handle a snake.
• Never buy snakes that have been caught in the wild.
• Report any illegal activity related to plants and wildlife to 1-877-TIPS-MNR (847-7667).

If hiking on the Bruce Trail, in Bruce Peninsula National Park, or other locations in the Bruce Peninsula, it’s possible that you may come across a Massassauga rattlesnake. The most common strikes occur to the foot or ankle when hikers unknowingly step over or on a snake. As a precaution, watch where you’re walking, wear appropriate footwear, and don’t reach into areas you can’t see (particularly at night).

If you hear a rattle, stop, locate the where the rattle is coming from, and slowly back away. If you are bitten by a Massassauga, remain calm and call emergency services. Never try to catch or kill the snake – it is unnecessary, dangerous, and illegal.

Keep the danger of snakes in perspective – encountering a Massassauga is rare and by following simple precautions you can usually avoid a confrontation.

Photo Credit: “Massasauga rattlesnake” by Tim Vicekrs – St Louis zoo, self-made. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

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