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Living in Harmony with the Massasauga Rattlesnake – Zhiishiigweg

It may be hard to think of rock barrens as “nurseries” but for numerous species at risk, eastern Georgian Bay’s rock barrens are preferred birthing sites. This includes birds, such as the common nighthawk and eastern whip-poor-will, and reptiles like the five-lined skink and Massasauga rattlesnake.

Eastern Georgian Bay is where almost the entire population of Massassauga rattlesnakes are found. Ontario’s only venomous snake, it is non-aggressive and under threat due to road mortality, direct persecution, and habitat loss.

In our area, “table” rocks – large, approximately 1 meter in size, flat slab rocks, are often preferred gestation sites for the Massasauga rattlesnake. The rocks have space for the snake to retreat underneath and are usually surrounded by grass or low-lying shrubs such as juniper. The table rocks are also exposed to sunlight for most of the day, providing a good range of temperatures so female Massasaugas can incubate their young.

Massasaugas give live birth unlike some of Ontario’s other snakes that produce eggs. The pregnant female will travel to the gestation site usually in mid-May and remain there until the young are born, typically early to mid-August. Gestating Massasaugas will feed very little during this time period and live off their fat reserves. After birth, the mother does not display any maternal instincts and will leave her gestation location after a few days. She will then eat as much as she can before hibernation, typically by early to mid-October.

A female Massasauga reaches maturity at 4-5 years old and will only give birth every 2-3 years. She will return to the same site to give birth and some sites are shared by multiple females. The slow reproductive rate of the Massasauga rattlesnake makes protecting existing gestation sites very important for the long-term survival of the species.

Have you seen a Massasauga on your property?

Don’t worry! Understanding snake behaviour and habitat will help you decide what to do when you see one. First ask yourself:

Has this snake been on the property for a period of time or did it show up recently?

Why? While females are gestating, males are on the move. So if the snake just showed up, it’s likely just passing by while it is looking for a meal, new habitat, or moving from one habitat type to another. If this is the case, we suggest leaving it alone and allowing it to move on naturally. This would be a time to put on pants, closed-toed shoes, and place your dog on a leash until you no longer see the snake. You can also use a very long stick (1m long minimum) to gently nudge it and encourage it to move on, however naturally is always best as it doesn’t cause the snake to go into distress.

If the snake has been around for a while, it is likely a pregnant female that has chosen that rock to gestate (the time it is pregnant to having young). This means you have great habitat that is important to this species! Flag this area in a square and monitor it, some families have even given the snake a name as they’ve gotten to know this individual over the years. By flagging the area, you can teach your family and visitors to respect the snake’s space. Stay away from the snake, but keep an eye on where it is, which will likely be the same rock for the entire summer until it gives birth.

From there, the snake and her young will travel to their winter hibernation spot. During the heat of the sunny day you will likely never see her as she will be under rocks trying to cool down. But in the early morning, dusk, and cool/humid nights you probably will. We recommend to everyone at these times to wear close-toed shoes (e.g. sneakers) when outside and in areas that the snake may be. Always check before you go to pick blueberries! It’s a little inconvenient but small changes to our behaviour keep important species protected.

A Massasauga rattlesnake hides under a table rock.
Fractured rock is a favourite habitat of the Massasauga rattlesnake. Can you spot the snake in this picture?
A Massasauga rattlesnake basks in the summer sunshine.

Still nervous?

Unlike other types of venomous snakes around the world, the Massasauga is one of the least venomous. They have enough venom to kill a mouse, but only enough to make us a bit woozy, uncomfortable, and cause localized swelling.

It is still important if bitten to seek medical attention and get to hospital. There are some pre-existing conditions where it can be more dangerous or you may have an increased reaction.

We highly recommend not trying to relocate the snake. Research shows that snakes are very sensitive to the area they know and relocating them can kill them as they cannot return to their familiar hibernation sites. Take the time to observe and understand this amazing species that is helping you by reducing rodent, tick, and insect populations!

Report your sightings to the Georgian Bay Biosphere iNaturalist Project!

Want to learn more? View the recorded webinar below, Living Alongside Zhiishiigweg.

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