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The massasauga rattlesnake, or swamp rattler, is the smallest of the three venomous snakes found in New York State. Adults may reach 100cm (40 inches) in length, and are stout-bodied with a broad head. While some are completely black, most adults are gray or brownish-grey with a dark row of hourglass-shaped markings along the back, and three rows of smaller dark spots along each side. A dark bar with a light border extends from the eye to the rear of the jaw. Like most non-venomous snakes, this rattlesnake has nine large scales on the crown of the head.
From the Chippewa language, massasauga means "great river-mouth" and probably refers to the snake's habitat. Found mostly in bogs and swamps, this snake prefers wet, lowland habitats, including marshes and floodplains. In summer, individuals may enter nearby woods and fields in search of prey. Massasaugas feed primarily on small rodents, but may also eat other snakes, frogs, and nesting birds. In New York, massasaugas hibernate from late October through late April, but do not hibernate in communal dens as do the other venomous species in New York.
Breeding typically occurs in May or June, but can occur anytime from April to September. A litter is produced every 2-3 years, and usually consists of 7-10 babies. Massasaugas do not lay eggs; instead they give birth to live young between mid-August and September. Baby snakes are 6.5-9.5 inches (16.5-24cm) long at birth. The massasauga reaches sexual maturity in 3-4 years and may live for about 14 years.
There are only two known massasauga populations left in New York State, and one is located in Onondaga County’s Cicero Swamp. These two remaining sites are safe from development, but habitat changes from natural succession (the gradual and orderly changes that result from progressive replacement of one community by another) continually reduces the quality of remaining habitat. This habitat loss, along with unregulated hunting and snake collecting, has led to a general decline of the species. Snakes are also killed because they are feared and falsely seen as a threat. To preserve this species, brush cutting, prescribed burning and herbicide applications are being tested as potential tools for habitat management, and captive rearing of young may be a promising technique in enhancing the populations.
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