Eastern Massasauga

Wisconsin Status: endangered
Federal Status: Under consideration for listing

Length: 20-32 inches

A Trip Through Time

How does the name "swamp rattler" grab you as a nick name? You may imagine the massasauga to be a vicious serpent, ready to strike. The term "rattlesnake" strikes fear in the hearts of most people. This is because of bad stories or rumors about a species that is in reality very shy and secretive.

The massasauga is one of the two venomous snakes in Wisconsin, the timber rattlesnake is the other. Believe it or not, before 1975 there was a bounty (a fee paid to people who kill "pest" species) in Wisconsin on rattlesnakes, paying up to 5 dollars a tail. In 1975 the bounty was lifted and the massasauga was placed on the Wisconsin Endangered and Threatened Species List. Some people were afraid that protection of the snake would help them to multiply out of control, but the truth was, their numbers have slowly dropped. Habitat loss is a big problem for these snakes, but the number of snakes killed for bounty might have hurt the populations permanently in some areas of the state.

The massasauga were also captured illegally for pets. Today the massasauga is found only in several isolated localities in southeastern, central, and westcentral Wisconsin. They are endangered, and without management and added protection this species could be lost in Wisconsin and throughout its range. Endangered or threatened throughout most of its range, the massasauga is being considered for federal listing by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The adult massasauga is usually two to three feet in length, while the adult timber rattler is usually longer than three feet. The massasauga has chocolate brown backsaddles and triple rows of brownish-black side patches which merge with a marbled dark gray or black belly. Body patches appear edged in black. The tail has five to seven dark cigarband rings and is tipped by a grayish-yellow rattle. The head is flattened and broad with one white and three dark stripes radiating from it’s face. Nine enlarged plate scales helmet its head. The timber rattler lacks these large plates and has only small random shaped head scales. Also, check out the tail, the Timber's is solid black just forward of its rattle. Learn more about snakes and how to identify the poisonous ones.

The infamous rattles are actually modified scales with a bony core. Each time the snake sheds its skin a new "button" is added to the rattle, therefore these rattles do not tell the snake's age, but the amount of times the animal has shed its skin. Massasaugas can shed their skin between 3 and 5 times a year, depending on their health and growth rate. The rattles are believed to serve as warning signals to predators. The rattle produces a buzzing sound similar to that of a grasshopper or cricket.

"Massasauga" means "great river mouth" in Chippewa, so named because it is usually found in river bottom forests and nearby fields. Massasaugas like mesic prairies and lowland places, for instance, along rivers, lakes, and marshes.

Massasaugas do not hibernate in a group like other snake species. Instead, they look for crayfish or mammal burrows, sawdust piles, or old root canals to hide alone. Crayfish burrows, which are built in river bottom dugouts with above ground mud chimneys, are the favorite hang outs for most massasaugas. Massasaugas hibernate in these burrows at or near water level. Since the massasauga cannot make its own burrows, it depends on these other animals for survival.

Massasaugas get out and about on warm, humid, overcast days and like to sun themselves. Usually they are coiled motionless in vegetation that hides them. They are usually shy, secretive animals which rely on their camoflage coloration to avoid predators. Most people think that all rattlesnakes will rattle before they strike and this is not always true. It might actually be people who listen for the rattle and kill them that have taught snakes to quit using their rattles these days.

Range for the massasauga in Wisconsin - the historic range is medium brown and current range is green.
Range for the massasauga in Wisconsin - the historic range is medium brown and current range is green.

Wisconsin is right in the middle of massasauga's range, running from central New York and southern Ontario to Iowa and Missouri. In the past, massasaugas were found across the southern half of Wisconsin. The draining and dredging of many wetland areas has resulted destroyed much of their habitat. Old records show that thousands of massasaugas were killed back in the late 1800s as the city of Milwaukee grew. The bounty, which lasted until 1975, also hurt this species in Wisconsin.

Breeding happens in the spring and the fall. Eight to 20 young are usually born in late August. Massasaugas are ovoviviparous, which means that the young are born live rather than from an external egg. They have an egg tooth that doesn't work, which means that they may have evolved from egg layers. The newborn snakes are about the thickness of a lead pencil and could wrap around a silver dollar. They are typically born under a log, wood pile, or in abandoned mammal burrows. They stay inside the "nest" for about 4 or 5 days while they shed their skin the first of many times. They "molt" to replace the skin they are born with because the old skin has been stretched and aged from rapid growth of the developing young. The new skin will allow protection and growth until it becomes too stretched and worn. Massasaugas mature in 2-3 years and can live up to 14 years.

The massasauga is a "pit viper." They were given this name because of the heat sensitive pits they have under each eye which alert the snake to prey or intruders. Massasaugas are preyed upon by raccoons, hogs, skunks, foxes, hawks, and eagles. They also eat cold-blooded prey, such as frogs and other snakes, but they are usually hungry for warm-blooded prey like mice and voles.

Rattlesnakes attack their prey by striking. They strike to inject toxic venom into the blood stream. A three foot snake can strike about 12 inches or about one-third of its body size. The fangs of a massasauga are hollow and the venom is secreted into them by glands. Rattlesnakes can control the injection of venom and sometimes don't use it when they bite because of self defense, possibly saving it only for prey. When they are not in use, the fangs rotate and fold backward against the roof of its mouth. Massasaugas have the control to move each fang separately as they desire.

Since 1900, no one in the state of Wisconsin has died from a massasauga bite. Drop for drop, the massasauga’s venom is more toxic than the timber rattler, but because of the smaller volume of venom, a bite would probably not cause severe harm to an adult human. Very few large domestic animals have ever been killed by rattlesnake bites and hogs are usually unharmed because of their layers of fat. Hogs are an efficient predator of rattlesnakes and have decreased snake numbers ever since hogs were brought to Wiscosnin.

The best thing to remember is that if you don’t bother the massasauga it generally won’t bother you. By wearing hiking boots and staying on the trail you can greatly reduce your chance of being bitten. If you are bitten, by knowing first aid and staying calm you can lessen the effects of the bite.

Many home remedies for rattlesnake bites have been used in the past, most of them based on folklore. Some of these included: salt and onions; a mixture of gunpowder, salt and egg yolk; black mud and tobacco; ammonia; and many different mixtures including whiskey!

You can report any sightings of the massasauga or other endangered or threatened species to the Bureau of Endangered Resources. Unfortunately, as a species becomes more and more scarce, poaching and illegal capturing become more and more of a problem. Please report any violations of wildlife laws toll free to the Wisconsin Emergency Hotline at 1-800-847-9367.