Eastern Massasauga

What is an Eastern Massasauga?
The Eastern Massasauga is a small, stout bodied rattlesnake averaging 20 to 30 inches in total length. Its color pattern is a series of large, dark brown to black, middorsal blotches and two to three rows of lateral blotches upon a light gray color. The tail has three to six dark cross-bands, while the belly is black, occasionally mottled with white. The young, approximately nine inches long when born, have a yellow-tipped tail with a “button” rather than a fully-developed functioning rattle. The small rattle sounds like the buzz of an insect and is barely audible beyond 5 feet. Although Massasaugas are venomous, they have a very mild-mannered temperament. Most Massasaugas will rely on their camouflage and remain quiet and still when approached. They rarely strike unless handled.

What Is All “The BUZZ” About?
The dramatic decline of the Eastern Massasauga is alarming! In Pennsylvania, the species is classified as a critically imperiled endangered species. On the federal level, the Massasauga is a candidate for listing as an endangered species. Recent studies by Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program staff have shown that only four of 19 historic populations in Pennsylvania still exist. Damming, road building, surface mining, and urbanization have destroyed large amounts of Pennsylvania’s Massasauga habitat, and the remaining open habitat is threatened by becoming overgrown by trees and shrubs.

The Massasauga is important to all citizens of Pennsylvania because it represents an essential component of Pennsylvania’s wildlife resources, biodiversity and natural heritage. Snakes, and specifically Massasaugas, are a vital part of our ecosystem. The Massasauga can be considered an “umbrella” species: Protecting an umbrella species potentially protects other species sharing all or some of the same environmental requirements. Many species, such as the Massasauga, are also uniquely important as indicators of environmental quality and function as environmental monitors. They also control the rodent population, thereby controlling rodent-carried diseases. Breakthroughs in the medical field have even resulted in medications for hypertension and diabetes from rattlesnake venom!

There are many direct and indirect benefits to conserving this species in Pennsylvania. Yet these docile and ecologically important creatures are in great jeopardy. Without immediate conservation of critical habitat for the Massasauga, remaining populations may be lost in the near future.

For more information, download the brochure: A Landowner’s Guide to the Eastern Massasauga in Pennsylvania: Management & Protection.

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