Has anyone ever seen a massasauga?
By By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist
The eastern massasauga, Sistruurus cantenatus, is sometimes called the pigmy or swamp rattlesnake (the most commonly used name for this pit viper is massasauga and means great river mouth in Ojibwe). This smallest of the rattlesnakes found in North America formerly was quite common throughout its range from central New York and southern Ontario to Iowa and Missouri, but it is on the endangered species list in the states in which it is found today.
The massasauga prefers to inhabit swampy areas, and the conversion of thousands of acres of wetlands to agriculture and development destroyed much of its habitat, and was the prime factor in its demise. Also, the unwonted slaughter of this reptile played a significant part in dramatically reducing its numbers during the last century. Thousands were killed in southern Wisconsin during the 19th and 20th centuries as the expanding city of Milwaukee paid a bounty of $5 for each tail presented. This practice did not stop until 1975.
For those few who enjoy keeping venomous animals as pets, the rare massasauga offers an alluring opportunity, but the cost of one from the rare dealer who has a specimen for sale is exorbitant. Of course, selling or keeping a massasauga in captivity is violation of the law.
Small populations of this serpent exist today in scattered locations throughout the upper four-fifths of Illinois, but at the present time, as far as can be determined, it has not been reported from Winnebago County in recent years. I feel sure, however, there are a few of them still residing in secluded spots in the Rock River Valley.
I personally encountered one in the 1960s on a warm spring day in a swampy area near Crete in Will County, near the Indiana state line. I judged the rattler to be about two feet in length (17 inches to three feet is the normal size for an adult). It was basking in the sun and was reluctant to defend itself when I tormented it with a LONG stick. It finally slithered away and disappeared into a nearby groundhog hole. In recent times, they have been noted to occur in scattered areas in Cook and Lake counties and, closer to home, in DeKalb County.
The massasauga is a member of the pit viper clan of venomous snakes that includes rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins. The female gives birth to 5-15 living young which are venomous as soon as they are born. In spite of the fact there have been no reported human deaths from the bite of a massasauga since 1900, it should be considered a dangerous animal, though it has been described as being very shy and seldom biting man.
Weight for weight, the venom of the massasauga is more toxic than that of a timber rattlesnake or an Eastern or Western diamondback, but it is not nearly as dangerous as its contemporaries as, due to its relatively small size, its bite delivers considerably less hemotoxic type poison.
Many individuals, unfortunately, believe rattlesnakes are always gentlemen (or ladies) and always give the warning rattle before striking. When rattlesnakes become frightened or angry, they usually vibrate their tails rapidly, which causes the rattles to strike together and produce a buzzing sound. In warm weather, when the snakes are not sluggish, the majority will probably rattle, but the practice is far from invariable.
The late Dr. A.I. Ortenburger of the University of Oklahoma studied this habit among rattlesnakes in Arizona and found only 4 percent of those he collected rattled before they struck. While this high percentage of villains among the rattlesnake clan would probably not apply to all situations, his research does indicate that a warning rattle cannot always be expected.
As noted, massasaugas prefer a wetland environment, but will range into pastures and fields in search of prey. Rodents form the bulk of its diet, but they will devour a bird if they can catch it and have been known to eat other snakes and lizards.
My father, who was raised on a farm near the Mississippi River, in Rock Island County, told me stories of his family encountering small rattlesnakes from time to time on their farm. He said they were called swamp rattlesnakes, but he could not recall anyone ever being bitten by one. However, the farmers in the area were afraid their grazing livestock might fall victim to a swamp rattler. It is unlikely any large farm animal died or became seriously ill from the bite of a massasauga. Hogs, especially, are almost immune to the bites of poisonous snakes because the layer of fat surrounding the interior of their body prevents any injected venom from reaching the blood stream. In fact, hogs are known predators of rattlesnakes.
If anyone sees or hears of a sighting of a massasauga in our area, I would greatly appreciate hearing from you. If you encounter one, dont kill it! Its a protected species.
Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Marylands eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.