Sistrurus catenatus catenatus
• Mating: Polygamous
• Peak Breeding Activity: April and May
• Gestation Period: 2-4 months
• Young are Born: Late July through September
• Litter Size: 3-19; 8 average
• Young: Precocial and are on their own after birth
• Number of Litters per Year: 1
• Migration Patterns: Year-round resident; young go, on average, less than 0.6 miles to establish their own territory.
• Feeding Periods: Early morning, late afternoon, or at night
• Typical Foods: Small mammals (short-tailed shrew, meadow vole, deer and white-footed mice), small snakes, small frogs, salamanders, toads, and young birds.
• Length: 20-30 inches
• Ohio Status: Endangered
The Eastern massasauga is a medium-sized, dark-colored, rattlesnake with 29 to 50 dark dorsal blotches on its gray or brownish gray body. There are three rows of smaller dark spots on each side of the body. The snake can be identified by its short (two to three feet), thick body. The head of this snake is thick and triangular, with black stripes. Its belly is black and irregularly marked with white or yellowish spots. The pupils of its eyes are elliptical. The triangular head and elliptical eyes are two features used to help identify a venomous snake. The most distinguishable feature of this snake is the stubby rattle on the end of its tail. This feature is associated with all species of venomous snakes, with the exception of the copperhead, which is also native to Ohio.
Habitat and Habits
Throughout much of its range in the eastern United States, massasauga rattlesnakes are found in wet prairies, sedge meadows, and early successional fields. Preferred wetland habitats are marshes and fens. They avoid open water and seem to prefer the cover of broad-leafed plants, emergents, and sedges. Natural succession of woody vegetation is a leading cause of recent habitat deterioration throughout its range. Intensive management to retard woody vegetation growth is necessary to maintain suitable habitat conditions.
Rattlesnakes hibernate singly or in small groups of two or three. By overwintering in moist soil, massasaugas are able to avoid lethally cold temperatures and reduce the risk of desiccation (drying out).
Reproduction and Care of the Young
Massasaugas are ovoviviparous (eggs develop in the body of the parent and hatch within or immediately after being expelled). The female produces large, yolk-filled eggs which are retained within her reproductive tract for a considerable period of development. The developing embryo receives no nourishment from the female, only from the yolk. Eggs of the massasauga hatch inside the female and the young are born “alive.” A female snake that retains eggs in her body can bask in the sun, thus raising the temperature of the eggs and speeding their development, resulting in a variable gestation period of two to four months.
After birth, the young are on their own—no maternal care is known in snakes. As is the case for all cold-blooded vertebrates, the growth of the young is heavily dependent upon the amount of food available.