What is the massasauga?

The massasauga is one of Canada's most unusual snakes-and one of the most threatened. Formerly called the eastern massasauga, this solitary, passive and timid rattlesnake relies on camouflage to avoid detection, shaking its tail in warning when it feels threatened.

Close-up of a massasauga's head.
Rocky terrain provides excellent hibernation sites.

Preferring flight to confrontation, it rarely strikes (and does so only if threatened), doesn't pursue people and doesn't always inject venom when it bites.

Up to a metre in length, the massasauga has a stocky, grey-brown body with dark, round blotches down its back and sides. It has a diamond-shaped head, catlike pupils and a blunt tail with a hollow rattle made of segmented scales. Its diet consists mostly of small mammals and songbirds, but also includes lizards, frogs, toads and other snakes.

When the massasauga rattlesnake flicks its forked tongue, it is collecting scent molecules from the air. This enables it to sense both its predators and its prey!

Where does the massasauga live?

Although its range once included most of southern and central Ontario, the massasauga is now found in only four parts of the province: the Ojibway Prairie Complex in the city of Windsor; Wainfleet Bog on the northeast shore of Lake Erie near Port Colborne; the Bruce Peninsula from Wiarton to Tobermory; and eastern Georgian Bay from Honey Harbour to Killarney. The largest and widest ranging population is found in eastern Georgian Bay, both on the mainland and on the many islands in the bay, including Manitoulin Island.

Areas that offer protection for the massasauga include Georgian Bay Islands National Park of Canada, Bruce Peninsula National Park of Canada and several provincial parks and other reserves. In these places, the snake finds abundant prey and a wide variety of wet and dry habitats, including wetlands, peat bogs, ponds, hardwood forests and rocky islands. The rocky terrain provides excellent hibernation sites.

On private lands, cottagers and local landowners who have grown to appreciate and live in harmony with the massasauga also protect the rattlesnake.

A map of massasauga rattlesnake ranges in Georgian Bay Islands, Bruce Peninsula and Point Pelee national parks.
The largest and widest ranging population is found in eastern Georgian Bay, both on the mainland and on the many islands in the bay, including Manitoulin Island.

What's the status of the massasauga?

The massasauga was listed as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in 1991 and this status was upheld in 2002. It is currently being added to Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act, which provides protection under federal law.

The massasauga is designated a "specially protected reptile" under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. It is therefore illegal to kill or trap the snake or to keep it in captivity. Ontario law also prohibits the purchase or sale of these snakes without a permit. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources listed the massasauga as threatened in the province in 1998, based on recommendations made by the Committee on the Status of Species At Risk in Ontario.

What's so special about the massasauga?

Massasauga
The massasauga is the only venomous snake still found in Ontario and one of just three members of the pit viper family in all of Canada.

The massasauga is Ontario's only remaining rattlesnake, and only remaining venomous snake. A handful of national parks in Ontario are among the last refuges in the world for this shy reptile.

The massasauga is one of just three members of the pit viper family in all of Canada. These vipers get their name from the heat-sensitive pits on either side of their heads. The pits allow the snake to detect minute changes in temperature, enabling it to locate warm-blooded prey, even in the dark! In fact, the massasauga can strike with incredible accuracy in total darkness.

Why is the massasauga in danger?

Monitoring studies since the early 1990s show that the massasauga population is declining throughout its range. The greatest threat to this snake is the loss and fragmentation of its habitat. Timber harvesting, quarry digging, housing and cottage developments and draining wetlands for agriculture have all taken their toll. Road construction has not only reduced available habitat, but has also fragmented the reptile's range. Roads also mean more vehicle traffic and more road kills, especially in spring and fall when the snakes migrate between their summer and winter habitats.

Close-up of a massasauga's rattle.
Its hollow rattle is made of segmented scales.

Another significant threat in some areas is the deliberate killing of the snake by humans. People's reactions to the snake are often ruled by fear and prejudice, so encounters between humans and the reptile frequently end fatally-for the snake. While the snake has natural predators, including great horned owls and red-tailed hawks, fishers, red foxes, coyotes and raccoons, it is persecution by humans that has been a major contributor to the decline of the species throughout its range.

Poaching is also a factor in the reptile's disappearance, but scientists don't know how widespread it is, nor how many snakes are caught for sale each year.

The total Ontario population of massasaugas is estimated to be between 18,000 and 32,000 snakes, with fewer than 100 snakes in each of the two southwestern populations. Isolated populations are particularly susceptible to extirpation (extinction within Canada ) as a result of chance incidents such as disease. Even the loss of a single breeding adult can be devastating for a small, isolated population such as that in the Wainfleet Bog or the Ojibway Prairie Complex.

What is Parks Canada doing to help save the massasauga?

The Canada National Parks Act protects massasaugas and their habitat within the boundaries of three national parks-Georgian Bay Islands National Park, Bruce Peninsula National Park, and Fathom Five National Marine Park. The maximum penalty for killing a massasauga rattlesnake in a national park is $250,000 and five years in jail. Partners from many organizations are contributing to studies, recovery projects and public awareness raising initiatives to help the massasauga make a comeback.

Research and monitoring

Massasauga
Up to a metre in length, the massasauga has a stocky, grey-brown body with dark, round blotches down its back and sides.

A Parks Canada ecologist chairs the Massasauga Recovery Team, which has developed a plan to safeguard this threatened reptile. The object of the recovery plan is to maintain the existing distribution and genetic structure of the local populations in the Bruce Peninsula and Georgian Bay regions and to support dwindling populations in the two southwestern Ontario pockets.

Research, monitoring and management are among the strategies for maintaining and restoring Ontario's rattlesnake populations. Parks Canada researchers are studying the snake's life history, genetics, distribution and survival needs, as well as the potential positive effects of habitat restoration and highway construction projects. Human impacts on the species are being monitored with the help of radio-telemetry studies, which involve inserting tiny transmitters into snakes and then tracking them. Monitoring their movements also increases understanding of their habitat preferences.

Recovery actions

Numerous projects are under way to maintain a healthy habitat for the snakes and to reduce the impact of human activities. One such project involves the construction of culverts to enable the snakes to travel under, rather than across, busy highways. Work teams have also constructed fences and designed special landscaping to funnel snakes into the culverts.

Public education

The success of these recovery efforts will ultimately depend on the tolerance of cottage owners, campers, hikers, canoeists and others who live in or visit areas that are home to this snake. That's why members of the recovery team work to educate people about this unique snake, and inspire a new appreciation for some of the fascinating aspects of its biology.

Efforts to change people's perceptions and reduce their fear of rattlesnakes are widespread and varied. They include hosting information workshops, forming community partnerships and distributing snake identification posters and landowner stewardship guides to cottagers, local landowners, park visitors, marinas, hospitals and humane societies. Working with partners, the recovery team has produced information on management and conservation strategies, a rattlesnake conservation booklet and a rattlesnake school curriculum guide.

Working with partners

The Massasauga Recovery Team brings together biologists, zoo officials, conservationists, and park and government representatives. The team collaborates with the provincial government, conservation authorities and Ontario Parks.

Everyone can play a role in massasauga conservation by learning more about this unique snake and how to live safely with it.

How can I help?

If you live or cottage in rattlesnake country:

  • pick up a copy of the Massasauga Rattlesnake Landowner Stewardship Guide, which is available online. The guide is full of useful information on how to identify rattlesnakes and what you can do to live safely with them. 
  • be good stewards of your land, join a local stewardship council or consider placing a conservation easement on your property.

If you're visiting the area:

  • visit Georgian Bay Islands National Park or Bruce Peninsula National Park to learn more about this snake and other rare species around Georgian Bay. 
  • be aware! Wear proper shoes when hiking around Georgian Bay, and watch where you place your feet. If you do happen to come across a rattlesnake (a rare occurrence), simply leave it some space and continue on your way. 
  • tread softly and be aware of what you leave behind. The massasauga lives in a fragile ecosystem-but if we treat it well, snakes and humans can share and enjoy it for a long time.

Related links

For more information on the massasauga, visit these Web sites: