Species at Risk
Sistrurus catenatus catenatus
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.
Rocky terrain provides excellent hibernation sites.
© Parks Canada / D.A. Wilkes / 06.64.10.10(10), 2004
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.
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.
© Parks Canada