Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus)

September 9, 2013

Michigan Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, photo by Jonathan Schechter/Earth’s Almanac

In Season of the Massasauga Rattler!, Jonathan Schechter writes that the massasauga  likes our sun-soaked trails in the waning days of summer and early autumn, so you may catch a glimpse of one if you’re out and about in Lower Michigan. The Michigan DNR page on the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) explains:

Michigan’s only venomous snake is a rare sight for most state residents. Historically, they could be found in a variety of wetlands and nearby upland woods throughout the lower peninsula. During the late spring, these snakes move from their winter hibernation sites, such as crayfish chimneys and other small mammal burrows in swamps and marshlands, to hunt on the drier upland sites – likely in search of mice and voles, their favorite food.

Females give birth to 8 to 20 young in late summer. The young snakes have a single “button” on their tails; a new rattle segment is added at each shedding of the skin, which occurs several times per year.

The massasauga can be characterized as a shy, sluggish snake. Its thick body is colored with a pattern of dark brown slightly rectangular patches set against a light gray-to-brown background. Occasionally, this coloration can be so dark as to appear almost black. The belly is mostly black. It is the only Michigan snake with segmented rattles on the end of its tail and elliptical, (“cat like”) vertical pupils in the eyes. The neck is narrow, contrasting with the wide head and body and the head appears triangular in shape. Adult length is 2 to 3 feet.

These rattlesnakes avoid confrontation with humans; they are not prone to strike – preferring to leave the area when they are threatened. Like any animal though, these snakes will protect themselves from anything they see as a potential predator. Their short fangs can easily puncture skin and they do possess a potent venom. It is best to treat them with respect and leave them alone. The few bites that occur to humans often result from attempts to handle or kill the snakes. Any bite from a massasauga should receive prompt professional medical attention. When compared to other rattlesnakes found in the United States, the massasauga is the smallest and has the least toxic venom.

Massasaugas are found throughout the Lower Peninsula, but not in the Upper Peninsula (thus there are no poisonous snakes on the Upper Peninsula mainland.)

They stress that Massasaugas are listed as a “species of special concern” and are protected by state law, so don’t kill or harm them. Read on for more including some lookalike snakes.

Jonathan adds that almost all rattler bites are on the dominant hand of the offending human! He took the photo above two years ago on a popular Oakland County hike-bike trail and notes that much of Oakland County is ratter habitat. Visit Earth’s Almanac to read more and be sure to subscribe to his blog when you’re there!

PS: Nick Scobel of the Herping Michigan blog has a great video of some Eastern Massasaugas that you should check out!

More Michigan snakes on Michigan in Pictures!

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