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Habitat Protection for Eastern Massasaugas

Posted on 5/27/2015 by State Nature Preserves

While the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves is best known for its native plant expertise, the statewide nature preserve system also provides habitat for rare wildlife species. During a visit to one of our northeast Ohio preserves, manager Adam Wohlever had the opportunity to see the Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus), one of Ohio’s rarest reptiles. Loss of suitable habitat, namely wet meadows and swamps with drier upland grassy areas, has all but eliminated this snake from Ohio.

Massasaugas, sometimes called swamp rattlers due to their habitat preferences, are a type of pit viper. They are relatively small, with adults rarely reaching three feet in length. Most of the snakes pictured here have solid dark coloration known as melanism. More typically, their slender bodies are mottled with brown, black, and gray blotches. They are not aggressive, but will defend themselves when provoked. Normally their bite is NOT fatal to humans. Their small rattle produces a warning that sounds much like a buzzing bee. Massasaugas feed on rodents such as meadow voles, deer mice and occasionally amphibians.

Snakes are now mating and females will soon be gravid with young. Instead of laying eggs, the embryonic snakes develop completely within the female’s body. Tiny snakes are then born live in August and September. During winter, Eastern Massasaugas escape freezing conditions by hibernating in underground crayfish burrows. Habitat management for these snakes includes maintaining open meadows. Routine mowing to remove woody plants, including invasive species, is critical. Please enjoy these pictures of herpetologist Greg Lipps and his staff as they collect valuable data on a population of Eastern Massasaugas that is protected by the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves.