The Massasauga Rattlesnake is a short (50-70 cm), thick-bodied snake with a triangular head and a small rattle at the end of their tail that makes a buzzing sound. They are light gray or brown with uniformly spaced, solid dark brown coloured blotches located dorsally along the spine. These blotches are pinched in the middle and resemble a bowtie or butterfly silhouette. The Massasauga Rattlesnake is the only venomous snake in Ontario, but will only bite if harassed or threatened. They are also the only snake in Ontario with vertical, cat-like pupils.
Massasauga Rattlesnakes are ambush predators, which means they prefer to sit and wait to come across their prey rather than hunting for them. Massasauga Rattlesnakes also have heat sensing pits that are located along the upper jaw in order to help them detect prey. Adult Massasaugas mainly rely on small mammals such as mice or voles for food, whereas juveniles have been known to prey on a wider variety of amphibians, other snake species, and invertebrates. They will use their venom to immobilize prey, and their colouring allows them to easily camouflage into their surroundings.
Biology and Behaviour:
The Massasauga Rattlesnake’s home range is quite small, usually around 1-1.5 km from their known hibernation sites. This is why it is important that they are not transported further than a few hundred meters from where they are found. Massasauga Rattlesnakes will mate in late spring and give birth in late summer. They will lay 2-19 eggs which will hatch immediately after birth. The young will remain in the area with their mother but there is no parental care needed. Generally females only give birth every 2-3 years. They typically emerge from hibernation in mid-late spring and return in mid-late October.
Despite being venomous, their small size and limited defensive abilities make them prey for a variety of raptors and mid-sized mammals. They are also generally docile and will not travel very far each day. Adults are most active at twilight and at night, while juveniles are more active during the day, as long as it is not too hot.
The Massasauga Rattlesnake is the only rattlesnake left in Ontario, but they can be confused with the Eastern Foxsnake, Eastern Hog-nosed Snake, Eastern Milksnake, and the Northern Watersnake. While the Eastern Foxsnake and Eastern Milksnake will vibrate their tails when threatened, all of these species lack a rattle, vertical pupils, and butterfly-shaped blotches.
Conservation and recovery strategies:
The Massasauga Rattlesnake and their habitat are protected in Ontario. Recovery strategies are based upon mitigating the current damage inflicted by road mortality, habitat loss, and persecution. Strategies that are listed include, but are not limited to, promoting alternate roadways that do not impede Massasauga habitat, installing eco-passages/culverts, outreach aimed at the public to dissuade from persecuting snakes, and protecting habitat in areas where Massasaugas are known to populate.
- Ontario holds roughly 10% of the global Massasauga population
- Only two people in medical history have ever been killed by a Massasauga rattlesnake. The last one was over 50 years ago!
- The majority of Massasauga rattlesnakes exhibit site fidelity. This means that they tend to stick around the same area for their entire life!
COSEWIC. 2012. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Massasauga Sistrurus catenatus in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. xiii + 84 pp. (www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/default_e.cfm).
Government of Ontario. 2021. Massasauga Rattlesnake. Retrieved from: https://www.ontario.ca/page/massasauga-rattlesnake
Government of Ontario. 2021. Massasauga Rattlesnake General Habitat Description. Retrieved from: https://www.ontario.ca/page/massasauga-rattlesnake-general-habitat-description
Government of Ontario. 2018. Massasauga (Carolinian and Great Lakes – St. Lawrence populations) government response statement. Retrieved from https://www.ontario.ca/page/massasauga-carolinian-and-great-lakes-st-lawrence-populations-government-response-statement
Government of Ontario. 2021. Recovery strategy for the Massasauga. Retrieved from: https://www.ontario.ca/page/recovery-strategy-massasauga
COSSARO. 2013. COSSARO Candidate Species at Risk Evaluation for Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus) Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Population. Committee on the Status of Species at Risk in Ontario (COSSARO). Retrieved from: http://cossaroagency.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Final-COSSARO-Evaluation-Massasauga-GLSL-population-March-15_GFM_process....pdf
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