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A Hillbilly Guide to Snakes: The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake

Updated on August 6, 2012

Sistrurus Cantenatus Cantenatus... The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake.

Also commonly referred to as the black rattler, black massasauga, Michigan rattler, swamp rattler, or simply massasauga, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake is venomous pit viper in the United States. It is on the endangered species list in Indiana, Ohio, and New York. It is considered a special concern in Michigan. It is quite possible that the eastern massasagaua rattlesnake may end up on the federal endangered species list at some point. The eastern massasaguag rattlesnake is the only venomous snake found in Michigan.


The eastern massasauga rattlesnake has a base gray color that has patterned brown to black spots and patches overlaying the gray. Like all rattlesnakes it is a pit viper, which means it has two extra holes near it's nostrils. It's head is triangle shaped because of the large venom glands that give it a puffy cheek look. As it's name applies the eastern massasauga rattlesnake has rattles on it's tail.

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake has a short and stubby look. An adult is usually between 20 and 30 inches.


The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is found from the northeast portion United States up in to New York and Pennsylvania. It makes it west over in to Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. It gets as far south as the northern part of Missouri. It also can be found in parts of Canada.

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is primarily found in wetlands and swamps, though they can be found in grasslands occasionally too.


Eastern massasauga rattlesnakes eat rodents, small mammals, other reptiles, amphibians, and some large bugs like centipedes. Adults generally diet mostly on rodents, while younger snakes tend to eat more reptiles. The further north the snake gets the more their diet includes frogs.

The snake uses it's venom to subdue and kill it's prey. Mammals can sometimes cause damage to an attacking snake, so the eastern massasauga rattlesnake will strike to release it's venom in the prey, then will back off and wait for the prey to die. The venom that the snake carries affects the blood and doesn't allow for clotting. This causes internal bleeding which will make short work of small mammals.

Interactions With Humans

Yes it's venomous. Yes it's dangerous. Yes if you mess with it then it might bite you! The safest way for a person to handle this snake is to not handle it at all. The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is generally thought of as a shy snake that will do it's best to avoid encounters with humans. When an encounter is unavoidable the snake will use it's rattles to warn predators away. Unfortunately, many people disregard these warnings and think that it is best to kill these snakes anytime they come in to contact with them. This leads ins't just in regard to eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, but to all venomous snakes and leads to the majority of bites in the United States.

If you are someone that ignores my warning and decide to harass any venomous snake and you get bit, then at least take this advice to heart... Seek medical attention immediately.


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      4 years ago

      How about some local email addresses for northern Illinois herps interested in these Eastern Massasauga rattlers. Nachausa or Kishwaukee river?? This is a link for my 2012 Redheaded Woodpecker Blitz Survey area - - is a link for my Flickr photostream As ever, Orin Keplinger, 11365 Marengo Road, Garden Prairie, IL 61038--9347 E)


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