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Massasauga rattlesnake 1.jpg
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Family: Viperidae
Genus: Sistrurus
S. catenatus
Binomial name
Sistrurus catenatus
(Rafinesque, 1818)

3 subspecies, see text

S. catenatus map.jpg
  • Crotalinus catenatus
    Rafinesque, 1818
  • Crotalusrus (Crotalus) catenatus
    Rafinesque, 1820
  • Crotalus messasaugus
    Kirtland In Mather, 1838
  • Crotalophorus Kirtlandi
    Holbrook, 1842
  • Crotalophorus consors
    Baird & Girard, 1853
  • Crotalophorus Kirtlandi
    Baird & Girard, 1853
  • Crotalophorus massasauga
    Baird, 1854
  • C[rotalus]. consors
    Coues In Wheeler, 1875
  • [Sistrurus] catenatus
    Garman, 1883
  • [Sistrurus catenatus] Var. consors Garman, 1884
  • Crotalophorus catenatus catenatus Cope, 1892
  • Sistrurus catenatus catenatus
    Stejneger, 1895
  • Sistrurus catenatus
    Boulenger, 1896
  • Sistrurus catenatus catenatus
    Cope, 1900
  • Crotalus messaugus
    – Golay et al., 1993

The massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus) is a rattlesnake species found in midwestern North America from southern Ontario to northern Mexico and parts of the United States in between. Like all rattlesnakes, it is a pit viper and is venomous.

Three subspecies were recognized for more than a century,[3] although research published in 2011 elevated two subspecies Sistrurus catenatus catenatus and Sistrurus catenatus tergeminus, to full species: the eastern massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus) and the western massasauga (Sistrurus tergeminus).[4] The status of the third subspecies was somewhat unresolved and it is tentatively recognized as the desert massasauga (Sistrurus tergeminus edwardsii) by some,[5] or synonymized with the western massasauga (Sistrurus tergeminus) by others.[6]


S. catenatus, St. Louis Zoo

Adults of S. catenatus are not large, ranging from 60 to 75 cm (24 to 30 in) in length.[7] Their color pattern consists of a grey or tan ground color with a row of large, rounded, brown/black blotches or spots down the center of the back and three smaller rows of alternating spots down each side. Solid black melanistic examples are also known, as well as cases where the back blotches join with those on the sides. Young massasaugas are well-patterned, but paler than the adults. They have heat-sensing pits on each side of their smallish heads, their scales are keeled, and their anal scales are single.

Common names[edit]

Common names of the massasauga include: massasauga rattlesnake, massasauga rattler (Ontario), black massasauga, black rattler, black snapper, gray rattlesnake (Iowa), little grey rattlesnake (Canada), muck rattler, prairie rattlesnake, spotted rattler, swamp rattler, víbora de cascabel (Mexico), dwarf prairie rattlesnake, eastern massasauga great adder, ground rattlesnake, Kirtland's rattlesnake, little black rattlesnake, Michigan point rattler (Michigan), prairie massasauga, rattlesnake, small prairie rattlesnake, snapper, swamp massasauga, swamp rattlesnake, and triple-spotted rattlesnake.[8][9]

The Native American word, "massasauga", means "great river-mouth" in the Ojibwe language and was probably given to describe grasslands surrounding the river deltas in Ojibwe country.[10]

Geographic range[edit]

S. catenatus is found in North America from Ontario, Canada and western New York southwest to southeastern Arizona in the United States and northern Tamaulipas, Mexico. In Mexico, isolated populations exist in southern Nuevo León, north-central Coahuila, and Samalayuca, Chihuahua.[11] It occurs in various habitats ranging from swamps and marshes to grasslands, usually below 1500 m elevation. The type locality given is "... on the prairies of the upper Missouri" (Valley, USA).[2]

According to Campbell and Lamar (2004), a population also exists in southeastern Colorado that is morphologically somewhat intermediate between S. c. tergeminus and S. c. edwardsii.[8]

Conservation status[edit]

The species S. catenatus is classified as least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The population trend is unknown.[1] The eastern massasauga has been listed as a candidate species on the United States Endangered Species Act since 1999.[12]

The eastern massasauga is listed as an endangered species in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri (also considered extirpated), New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.[13][14][15] Michigan, the only state in which it is not considered endangered, lists it as "special concern".[16] The subspecies is a candidate for federal listing.[17] As of 2016, the massasauga is listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.[18]

The massasauga is listed as threatened under both Ontario's Endangered Species Act, 2007, and the federal Species at Risk Act, and is protected under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act.[7][19] It is found only near the eastern shore of Georgian Bay, the Bruce Peninsula, the North Shore of Lake Huron,[20] Wainfleet Bog, and Ojibway Prairie.[21] It is becoming rare in Canada due to persecution and loss of habitat and is designated as "threatened" by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC),[22] as well as the Committee on the Status of Species-at-risk in Ontario (COSSARO).

In Pennsylvania, the species has experienced a rapid decline largely because of habitat loss. Historically, this has been due to human activity and more recently primarily from natural forest succession. By 1988, the snake had disappeared from half of the counties that constituted its historical range.[23] A 2003–2005 survey showed only four locations in two counties with confirmed populations.[24] It is classified as "critically imperiled" to "imperiled" in the commonwealth.[25]


The diet of S. catenatus consists of a variety of small vertebrates, including mammals, lizards, and other snakes, as well as invertebrates such as centipedes. Mammals and reptiles make up the bulk of their diet. Adults feed mainly on rodents, while juveniles usually prey on reptiles, more often lizards in western populations and snakes in eastern ones. Frogs also constitute an important part of their diet: Ruthven (1928) mentioned that in Michigan they made up the main portion of their diet. According to Klauber (1956), S. catenatus feeds on frogs more frequently than any other rattlesnake. In general, however, frogs are not an important part of the diet, although this does seem to be more typical in certain northern and eastern populations.[8]


The venom of S. c. catenatus is a cytotoxic venom, so destroys tissue. It also contains specialized digestive enzymes that disrupt blood flow and prevent blood clotting. Severe internal bleeding causes the death of the small animals that this snake eats. After envenomation, the rattlesnake is able to withdraw from the dangers of sharp-toothed prey animals until they are subdued and even partially digested by the action of the venom.

S. c. catenatus is rather shy and avoids humans when it can. Most massasauga snakebites in Ontario have occurred after people deliberately handled or accidentally stepped on one of these animals.[citation needed] Both of these scenarios can be prevented by avoiding hiking through areas of low visibility (in rattlesnake country) when not wearing shoes and long pants and by leaving the snakes alone if encountered. Only two incidents of people dying from massasauga rattlesnake bites in Ontario have been recorded; in both cases, the victims did not receive proper treatment.[26]


Subspecies[3] Taxon author[3] Common name[27] Geographic range[8][9][27]
S. c. catenatus (Rafinesque, 1818) Eastern massasauga United States: central and western New York south of Lake Ontario, western Pennsylvania, northern and central Ohio, northern Indiana, lower Michigan, Illinois, southern and southwestern Wisconsin, extreme southeastern Minnesota, eastern Iowa, and northeastern Missouri

Canada: southern Ontario along the shores of Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, and Lake Erie

Considered to be its own separate species as of 2011[28]

S. c. edwardsii (Baird & Girard, 1853) Desert massasauga United States: extreme southeastern Arizona; central and southern New Mexico; western Texas about as far north and east as the Colorado River; the Rio Grande Valley; and throughout the Texas Gulf Coast region extending as far north as Brazoria County as well as on several barrier islands including North Padre Island, Matagorda Island, and San José Island

Mexico: isolated populations in the country's northeast region bordering Texas

S. c. tergeminus (Say, 1823) Western massasauga United States: extreme southeastern Nebraska and northwestern Missouri, east-central Kansas, west-central Oklahoma, and northern and central Texas about as far southwest as the Colorado River


  1. ^ a b Frost, D.R.; Hammerson, G.A.; Santos-Barrera, G. (2007). "Sistrurus catenatus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2007: e.T64346A12772707. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2007.RLTS.T64346A12772707.en. Retrieved 19 November 2021.
  2. ^ a b McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T. (1999). Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, vol. 1. Herpetologists' League. 511 pp. ISBN 1-893777-00-6 (series). ISBN 1-893777-01-4 (volume).
  3. ^ a b c "Sistrurus catenatus". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 30 January 2007.
  4. ^ Kubatko, L.S.; Gibbs, H.L. & Bloomquist, E.W. 2011. Inferring Species-Level Phylogenies and Taxonomic Distinctiveness Using Multilocus Data in Sistrurus Rattlesnakes. Systematic Biology 60 (4):393–409
  5. ^ Powell, Robert, Roger Conant, and Joseph T. Collins. 2016. Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America, 4rd ed. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Massachusetts. xiii, 494 pp. (see pages 443-445) ISBN 978-0-544-12997-9
  6. ^ The Reptile Database: Sistrurus tergeminus (SAY, 1823): accessed April 12, 2022
  7. ^ a b Eastern Massasauga, Ontario Nature
  8. ^ a b c d Campbell JA, Lamar WW. (2004). The Venomous Reptiles of the Western Hemisphere. Comstock Publishing Associates, Ithaca and London. 870 pp. 1500 plates. ISBN 0-8014-4141-2.
  9. ^ a b Wright AH, Wright AA. (1957). Handbook of Snakes of the United States and Canada. Comstock Publishing Associates. (7th printing, 1985). 1105 pp. ISBN 0-8014-0463-0.
  10. ^ Behler JL, King FW. (1979). The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 743 pp. LCCCN 79-2217. ISBN 0-394-50824-6. (Sistrurus catenatus, pp. 696-697 + Plates 632-633, 638.)
  11. ^ Report on Samalayuca Fauna Reporte de Fauna de la Region de Samalayuca UACJ Archived 2006-12-01 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Moore, Jennifer; Gillingham, James (2006). "Spatial Ecology and Multi-scale Habitat Selection by a Threatened Rattlesnake: The Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus)". Copeia. 2006 (4): 742–751. doi:10.1643/0045-8511(2006)6[742:seamhs];2. S2CID 85970243.
  13. ^ "Illinois Natural History Survey Collections".
  14. ^ Indiana Legislative Services Agency (2011), "312 IAC 9-5-4: Endangered species of reptiles and amphibians", Indiana Administrative Code, retrieved 28 Apr 2012
  15. ^ "Stockdale, December 21, 2014".
  16. ^ "Sustaining a Ssssssspecies" (Video). Michigan State University. June 16, 2016. Retrieved June 16, 2016.
  17. ^ "The massasauga is listed as a special concern in the U.S. state of Michigan". Retrieved 28 May 2012.
  18. ^ "Eastern Massasauga Fact Sheet". U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
  19. ^ Royal Ontario Museum: Massasauga Rattlesnake
  20. ^ "Rattler makes rare appearance - on golf course".
  21. ^ Rouse, J.D. and Wilson, R.J. (2001). Update COSEWIC Status Report on the Eastern Massasauga, Sistrurus catenatus catenatus. Prepared for the Committee of the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), November 2001. v+18pp.
  22. ^ "Massasauga". Species at Risk. Canada. Retrieved June 16, 2016.
  23. ^ Howard K. Reinert and Lauretta M. Bushar, "The Massasauga Rattlesnake in Pennsylvania: Continuing Habitat Loss and Population Isolation", International Symposium and Workshop on the Conservation of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, Sistrurus catenatus catenatus, 1992 May 8–9 May, Toronto Zoo, Toronto, Ontario.[1]
  24. ^ "Western Pennsylvania Conservancy - Eastern Massasauga Research".
  25. ^ "Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus)" Fact Sheet, Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program
  26. ^ "Eastern Masassauga Rattlesnake" (PDF). Retrieved June 16, 2016.
  27. ^ a b Klauber LM. 1997. Rattlesnakes: Their Habitats, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind. Second Edition. First published in 1956, 1972. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-21056-5.
  28. ^ Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife. "USFWS: Eastern Massasauga".
  29. ^ "CNAH: The Center for North American Herpetology". Archived from the original on February 22, 2014. Retrieved February 10, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ontario Snakes, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Toronto, 1981. P. 36.
  • Rafinesque, C. S. (1818). "Further Accounts of Discoveries in Natural History, in the Western States". American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review. 4 (5): 39–42. (Crotalinus catenatus, new species, p. 41).

External links[edit]