Species Spotlight: The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA Intern

Michigan’s sole rattlesnake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, is a rare sight to see for residents of the Lower Peninsula. When compared to other rattlesnakes found throughout the United States, the Massasauga is the smallest and has the least toxic venom. These snakes are known as pit vipers, which means they are equipped with heat-sensing organs between their eyes and nose on either side of the head that serves as a set of infrared eyes that operate separately from the eyes and nose that allows the animal to see heat.

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Historically, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake could be found in a variety of wetlands and upland woods all throughout the Lower Peninsula. They are becoming more rare in many areas they used to inhabit due to wetland loss and human interference. This species is listed in Michigan as a “species of special concern” and state law protects them.

People have come up with many misconceptions about snakes and often think they attack and bite if they are disturbed. Like many other species of snake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is a very shy and sluggish reptile. They prefer to avoid confrontation with humans and are not prone to striking unless heavily provoked.  These reptiles have a thick body and a slender head and neck. They are painted with dark brown rectangular patches that are offset by light brown or grey background tones. Adults can reach between two and three feet in length.  Young baby snakes do not have rattles, but they have a single “button” on their tails, with a new segment added to their forming rattle after each shedding of their skin which happens several times per year. This snake is unique because they are the only species of snake with elliptical vertical pupils in their eyes, like a cat’s eye.

During the spring, the Massasaugas use open shallow wetlands and shrub swamps to thrive in. During the summer, they move upland to drier areas and can be found sunning themselves in open fields and grassy meadows. Populations of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake are typically found in prairie fens because they utilize the diversity of the fens and the unique habitats they provide. They use the land to forage, bask and conceive young.

Many sanctuaries protected by the Michigan Nature Association also protect the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, typically sanctuaries containing a prairie fen. MNA works hard to protect and restore the fens to benefit species that rely specifically on them. To find ways to get involved, visit www.michigananture.org.

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