Nearly 20 volunteers along with several student summer interns gathered in the auditorium at Matthaei Botanical Gardens June 20 to learn about the eastern massasauga rattlesnake. The meeting was part of the “Lunch & Learn” educational sessions for our volunteers. These quarterly sessions help build a sense of community outside of the volunteers’ regular work days and show appreciation for the amazing service they provide.

Volunteers settle in for a presentation on the eastern massasauga trattlesnake .
Matthaei-Nichols natural areas specialist and massasauga expert Steve Parrish introduced the native massasauga to the audience. The word “rattlesnake” invariably gets a few worried looks and lots of questions. Fortunately, the massasauga is a smallish, placid, shy snake that would rather be left alone. Approach the massasauga, and it turns rattle and heads for the underbrush.

A massasauga at Matthaei Botanical Gardens
The massasauga, explained Parrish, is a pit viper, meaning it has two heat-sensing pits on its head that help the snake detect prey. You can also identify a pit viper by its vertical, slit-shaped pupils.
Meadow voles make the lion’s share of the massasauga’s diet, although the snake has been known to eat frogs, insects, and even other snakes. The massasauga gives birth to live young after a gestation period of about three to four months. The snake is born with just one rattle, or “button,” as they’re called, growing additional buttons with each molting. Unlike the full-on rattle of its more aggressive cousin the western rattlesnake, the massasauga’s rattle is more of a cicada-like, intermittent buzz.
The massasauga often overwinters in crayfish burrows. If a crayfish or two are present, they usually get along and the massasauga doesn’t eat the crayfish. In fact, Parrish attended one survey where naturalists used scopes to sight down the burrows. One burrow was being shared by the snake, crayfish, and frogs.
The massasauga often makes its winter home in a crayfish burrow.

The massasauga’s historic range includes nine states plus Ontario. A healthy population of massasaugas inhabits Matthaei Botanical Gardens, and a survey from 2010-11 uncovered 27 snakes on the property. “Massasauga” is Ojibwe for “great river mouth,” Parrish said, possibly because of the wetland areas it lives in. Massasauga lookalikes include the eastern fox snake, eastern hog-nosed snake, and the northern water snake.
If you see a massasauga, keep a safe distance of at least several feet. Though it’s a timid snake, like many wild animals the massasauga prefers to be left alone. Don’t try to pick up the snake or play with it. And please report your sighting to the front desk at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Staff here as well as the DNR like to know when and where one’s been spotted.

Why do we protect a venomous snake, you may ask? The massasauga is a keystone species, that is, it fits into the ecosystem like a puzzle piece. It helps control the population of meadow voles and the massasauga itself is food for other predators.