The Massasauga Rattlesnake


June 2010

The one and only venomous snake in Ontario is the Massasauga Rattlesnake. It is officially listed as threatened. The majority of its population can be found on Beausoleil Island in Georgian Bay as well as along the shores of Georgian Bay and on the Bruce Peninsula, including the eastern shores of Lake Huron. In some areas along the Georgian Bay coastline where rivers empty into the bay, these snakes have used the river systems as access routes to penetrate, in some cases many kilometers inland.

For example, I recall stopping my car on the side of the road one summer morning many kilometers east and inland from Georgian Bay, when I saw a stout-bodied snake on the pavement. I got out of the car to take a look. Sure enough it turned out to be a Massasauga Rattler, albeit a very dead one since it had been run over at some point.

Unfortunately, this is how many reptiles meet their demise. This particular snake that I was now looking at had likely migrated to the road sometime the previous night to collect heat from the road’s sun baked surface. It is not at all unusual for snakes in general to do this when temperatures fall in the night. This is why, when in rattlesnake country you shouldn’t walk along a roadside or forest trail at night without the aid of a flashlight. I know someone who was almost bitten while walking along a sandy path at night because a rattler had curled up on the path to collect heat.

Snakes seek warmth because they are cold-blooded, which means that (unlike mammals and birds) their body temperature is not maintained at an even level. Snakes take on the temperature of their surroundings, i.e. if it is cold outside they in turn will feel the cold; if it is warm outside the snake will be warm.

I have experienced numerous close encounters with Massasuaga Rattlesnakes but only two of these have been rather hair-raising. During one of these encounters in 1994 a friend of mine came very near to being bitten. We were staying a few days at a friends cottage located in a remote spot well north of Beausoleil Island on the Georgian Bay coast.

One evening at dusk we headed down to the shore to enjoy a campfire. My friend Jason was in the lead approximately a meter or so in front of me. For the record I should mention that a day earlier when we had arrived by boat (the only way to get to this cottage) I had advised Jason to watch where he steps, making it clear that we were in prime rattlesnake territory.

Well, guess what happened as we attempted to make our way to our yet to be lit campfire? Yes, you guessed it! The sound of a vibrating rattle the size of a buick abruptly broke the serene and tranquil setting. It came crashing into my ears with the force of a freight train! I automatically stopped, my every muscle frozen, but Jason continued walking forward. I managed to squeak out a muffled, STOP! STOP! DON’T MOVE! I said, “Jason, somewhere directly in front of you is a rattlesnake so whatever you do, don’t move! Just try to locate it visually if you can”.

It was getting darker by the second and our flashlight was back at the campfire. Luckily, Jason managed to spot the rattlers location,- about ¾ of a meter in front of him. I slowly looked around him and saw the snake, and let’s just say it wasn’t a baby. This one had been around a long time and had a large rattle.

I was worried for Jason and for a very good reason; he is highly allergic to bee and wasp stings. I could therefore only imagine what would happen if he were bitten by a rattlesnake, no matter what toxicity the venom might be. To make matters worse, no roads existed in or out from this location and it was a good 40 minute boat ride at high speed back to a main Harbour. But that was during daylight hours and in good weather. From this location driving a boat at night, even with excellent spotlights would be monotonously slow and dangerous. Our only link to help was a cell phone, which didn’t always work from this location, but regardless, there was still no way out. Our only hope would be rescue by helicopter, though how long would that take? Maybe an hour, maybe two and by then it might be too late.

At this point I asked Jason just how allergic was he to bee/wasp stings. He replied, VERY. I said, Okay, so what do you think might happen if you get bitten by a rattlesnake? “Well,” he began, “first my throat starts to close up and I get severe hives, then I get shaky and dizzy, but that’s if I’m stung by a bee. If I were bitten by a rattlesnake it would probably kill me within a couple of hours, maybe sooner.”

As he finished with his reply I remember thinking, Oh Boy! We’re having some fun now, aren’t we campers! At this stage I stupidly said,”don’t move, I’ll be back in a minute”. In a tense tone Jason assured me he wasn’t planning on going anywhere. Anyhow to make a long story shorter, I managed to back up very slowly away from Jason and the rattler. Then when I was a safe distance from the two of them, ran up the path to the cottage to retrieve a tall aluminum pail and a long stick.

Returning cautiously to the scene, I requested that Jason back up very slowly, all the while feeling carefully with his feet ( yes,..bare feet) so as not to stumble backwards. This, I was sure would spell disaster! Thankfully, he managed to slowly step backwards without any problems and was now safe. He was shaking, hyperventilating a little and wore a stressed-out expression on his face. Other than that , he was no worse for wear.

I then moved in and began attempting to pick up the rather miffed snake with the stick and place it in the container, in almost total darkness. Wow, what fun that was. However I did manage to package our “friend”, (in Jason’s case I use the term loosely since he had many other names for it which I cannot use in this article). I let it go farther back in the bush the next day, with the intent of not removing it too much from its territory.

Relocating snakes to new eco-zones is not usually successfully accomplished unless the relocation area closely matches that of its original habitat. In some cases, if these requirements are met, the snake can survive quite nicely. But in most cases, it is better to leave the snake in generally the same place you found it to ensure its survival.

Young Massasauga Rattlesnakes are live born from late July to early September. There are usually seven or eight in a litter. Even at this young age they are equipped with venom sacks and fangs.

The rattle segments are not an indicator of the snake’s age, but rather, indicate how many times the snake has shed its skin during the year.

Their favoured habitat is swampy, marshy areas where frogs and mice can be found in abundance. Frogs and mice are also its food of choice.

Although the Massasauga’s venom is actually quite neuro-toxic, usually the amount injected is minimal. Therefore the one saving grace when it comes to people being bitten is that the snake will not waste copious amounts of venom on a human being because the snake is simply biting in defense and realizes that what it is biting is not its food source. This alone has likely saved a number of people from having much more severe reactions to the venom when bitten because the snake does not want to waste it on something too large that it can’t eat. Beyond this, its fangs are short when compared with other rattlers/pit-vipers, which means that thick socks can help prevent the fangs from penetrating or deeply penetrating the skin.

My best advice to people visiting rattlesnake country is to learn to properly identify this species which is not difficult. Also have a snakebite kit handy, knowing full well how to use it. When walking along paths or through bush , wear thick socks and hiking boots which adequately protect the ankle. A long walking stick is also a good thing to have along. This can be used for probing alongside logs and brush you may have to cross over or walk beside.

Remember, the Massasauga Rattlesnake is Ontario’s only venomous snake; all others are harmless if they do not have a rattle. It is a timid and threatened species, and it is also illegal to kill them. They are excellent mousers and like all other species inhabiting the planet, help to play a role in balancing nature.


© Copyright 2010 Bill Leeming - All Rights Reserved