Eastern rattlesnake

Pictured is an Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake in this image from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Editor’s note: The Courier Express, in collaboration with Lola M. Smith, MS, lecturer in biology at Penn State DuBois, is republishing a series of work completed by college students about endangered species in Pennsylvania. References for the work, similar to a college research paper, are credited at the end for each article.

The eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) is an endangered species in Pennsylvania that is not nationally listed as endangered. The eastern massasauga rattlesnake is confirmed to be found in Butler and Venango counties (PA Herps). Their preferred habitat includes old fields and wet meadows as well as low-lying areas of saturated soil. This habitat is only found in relict prairie terrain of certain counties in the western part of the state (PNHP 2007). They also utilize crayfish burrows to gain access to groundwater that remains unfrozen during hibernation. (WPC 2008)

Eastern massasaugas average 20-30 inches in length. They are light gray with dark brown/black blotches along their back and sides. The sound of adult snakes rattling can be mistaken for the buzz of an insect and is barely audible beyond five feet. Even though they are venomous, they have a mild temperament and will rarely strike unless handled (WPC 2008). Although never common in Pennsylvania, eastern massasaugas are now only found in half of their historic range. Their decline was caused by dam building, highway construction, urbanization, forest succession, surface mining, and agricultural activities which led to severe habitat loss (PNHP 2007).

An action plan put together by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission addresses goals to maintain existing populations and to protect its remaining habitat. The secondary goal is to enhance the existing populations by improving and increasing local habitat. The long-term recovery goal is to increase reproducing populations in their current range as well as their historic range. (PFBC 2011). With the support of private landowners and private foundations, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has restored and managed 40 acres of massasauga habitat (WPC 2019)

As a landowner you may be able to aid in the recovery process by clearing brush, planting prairie grasses, wildflowers, and other native plants, selectively using herbicides, prescribed burns, and biannual mowing. Keep in mind that most of these methods will have to be done during the hibernation period which is November through March (WPC 2008). Another way to get involved would be to contact a biologist to develop a habitat plan for your property.


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PA Herps. (n.d.). Eastern Massasauga. PA HERP IDENTIFICATION. https://www.paherps.com/herps/snakes/massasauga/.

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission . (2011). Species Action Plan: Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus). https://www.fishandboat.com/Resource/Documents/species-plan-eastern-massasauga.pdf.

Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program. (2007). Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus). http://www.naturalheritage.state.pa.us/factsheets/11558.pdf.

Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. (2019, October 22). Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. https://waterlandlife.org/wildlife-pnhp/species-at-risk-in-pennsylvania/eastern-massasauga-rattlesnake/.

Western Pennsylvania Conservancy; Pennsylvania Game Commission. (2008). The Landowner’s Guide to the Eastern Massasauga in Pennsylvania: Management and Protection. https://waterlandlife.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/massasauga-landowners-guide.pdf.

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