Endangered Wild Animal
Pictured above: These pictures are of a captive specimen legally owned by a member of the DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources for educational purposes. It is absolutely illegal for personal collectors to own this snake within Wisconsin. Note the large blotches along the back, the gray background, and the distinct band running from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Also note the posture (coiled) which is typical of resting rattlesnakes. Although this snake appears large in the photos, when coiled it is actually smaller than a dinner plate.
Description: Massasaugas are one of only two species of venomous snakes found within the La Crosse area (and Wisconsin). They are relatively small, reaching adult lengths of only 20-32 inches. Their dorsal patterning is usually gray or tan with brown or blackish-brown blotches. Their tails are ringed and tipped with a rattle. Massasaugas have heavily patterned heads (unlike those of Timber Rattlesnakes), with stripes running from the eyes down unto the neck. Like all vipers, these snakes belong to the family Viperidae, and the sub-family Crotalinae, which includes "pit-vipers" worldwide, such as copperheads and water moccassins (which do not exist in Wisconsin). The term "pit viper" refers to the heat-sensing pits (found near the nostril) that help these snakes locate warm-blooded prey.
Habitat/Ecology: Massasaugas are reportedly found in lowland forests, forested wetlands, and river back-waters. Occasionally, they are reported in wet meadows or fields that exist near water sources.
Massasaugas are reported to over-winter in crayfish borrows that exist at or just above the water level. Unlike many other snake species, they hibernate singly, and not communally. Normally, when water levels rise during spring floods, this species exits its' borrow for the season. However, this can be risky. Especially in recent years when unseasonably warm weather has occurred early, causing snow to melt sooner than normal, only to be followed by another period of below freezing temperatures. This may cause the snakes to exit their burrows early, and then be subjected to freezing temperatures above ground.
These snakes supposedly breed in both spring and fall. Females give birth to 8-20 young in late August (like Timber Rattlesnakes, these snakes do not lay eggs, but give birth to live individuals).
They feed primarily on rodents, but are said to eat other prey, such as amphibians and fish. Because they are venomous, they hunt by first envenomating their prey, and then locating it with their heat sensitive pits before consuming it.
Remarks: The Massasauga is not a very long snake, but is somewhat thick-bodied. Sometimes referred to as a "swamp rattler", they are more at home near water than Wisconsin's other native rattlesnake (the Timber Rattlesnake). These snakes are EXTREMELY rare in Wisconsin and are considered by many to be the state's most endangered reptile. It is unlikely that they will be encountered. I have spent a fair amount of time in wetlands around the La Crosse area, and have never witnessed one. Furthermore, on several occasions, I have spent many, many hours searching habitats in Buffalo County, which are said to be home to these snakes, and found not a single on. These are very secretive snakes whom rarely bite unprovoked. Furthermore, they are relatively small and generally cannot strike a human anywhere above the knee. This coupled with the fact that their fangs do not usually penetrate normal hiking boots, makes it unlikely for them to be deadly to humans.
I have read that while the city of Milwaukee was being built many, many years ago, the area was covered with these small rattlesnakes, which were almost always killed by construction workers. Now, one would be hard pressed to find any snake within the city limits of Milwaukee, let alone one as rare as the Massasauga.
It is interesting to note that the word massasauga is derived from the Chippewa language and means "great river mouth".
The Wisconsin DNR currently lists Massasaugas as “Endangered” and harming them can result in stiff fines of several THOUSAND DOLLARS and jail time.
If one is encountered, please contact Robert Hay at the DNRs' Bureau of Endangered Resources in Madison WI, myself, or dial 1-888-74SNAKE