Ontario's Only Venomous Snake!

Some facts about Canada’s only Venomous Snake the Massasauga Rattler!



              The Massasauga is a stout bodied rattle snake species found in Midwestern North America from Southern and Eastern Ontario to northern Mexico. As with all rattlesnakes, it is a pit viper, and like all pit vipers it is venomous. The adult snakes are not large, ranging from 60 to 75 cm in length. The colour pattern consists of a grey or tan colour with a row of large rounded brown/black blotches or spots down the center of the back and three smaller rows or alternation spots down each side. Solid black melanistic examples are also known as well as cases where the back blotches join with those on the sides. Young Massasauga are well patterned but paler than adults. The snake also has heat sensing pits on each side of its smallish head. 





               In Ontario Massasauga’s live in different types of habitats, including tall grass prairie, bogs, marshes, shorelines, forests and alvars. Within all of these habitats, Massasauga’s require open areas to warm themselves in the sun. Pregnant females are most often found in open, dry habitats such as rock barrens or forest clearings where they can more easily maintain the body temperature required for development of their offspring. Non-pregnant female and males forage and mate in lowland habitats such as grasslands, wetlands, bogs and shorelines of lakes and rivers. Massasauga’s hibernate underground in crevices in bedrock, sphagnum swamps, tree root cavities and animal burrows where they can get below the frost line but stay above the water table.

               In Canada the Massasauga is found only in Ontario, primarily along the eastern side of Georgian Bay and on the Bruce Peninsula. Two small populations have also been found in the Wainfleet Bog in the northeast side of Lake Erie and in Windsor. The Massasauga was once more widespread in southwestern Ontario, especially along the shores of the great lakes.  


               The Massasauga’s diet consists of a variety of small vertebrates, including mammals, lizards, and other snakes, as well as invertebrates such as centipedes. Mammals and reptiles make up the bulk of their diet. Adults feed mainly on rodents, while juveniles usually prey on reptiles i.e. smaller snakes. As well frog’s makeup an important part of their diet.


              The Massasauga’s numbers are declining and this is mostly due to persecution by humans, mortality on roads, and loss of habitats. These threats led to the disappearance of this species from most of its historic range in southwestern Ontario.  In Ontario these threatened species and their general habitat are automatically protected by the government. As well, there is currently an on-going recovery strategy that advises the agencies in charge on ways to ensure healthy numbers of the species.

               So what can we do to ensure we don’t lose another species? First off, always report a sighting of and endangered animal or plant to the Natural Heritage Information Center. Photographs with specific locations or mapping coordinates are always helpful. The Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas also collects observations of all Ontario reptiles and amphibians and you can submit your observations at www.ontarionature.org/atlas.

               Besides reporting an animal there are steps that landowners and everyday people can take to ensure the species recovery and longevity. Private land owners have a very important role to play in species recovery. Land owners are eligible for stewardship programs that support the protection and recovery of species at risk and their habitats. Every year, snakes all over the province must cross busy roads, watch for snakes on the road, especially between May and October when they are most active. Appreciate snakes and don’t harm them, sadly people continue to deliberately kill snakes. Always keep the danger of snakes in perspective. All of Ontario’s snakes are non-venomous except for the very rare Massasauga. When hiking in Massasauga habitat, wear leather hiking boots and loose fitting long pants, consequently always watch where you are walking and never reach into areas that you cannot see. If you come across as snake, never try and capture it, handle it, or kill it, snakes can be delicate and improper handling can cause serious injury. As well certain species are protected under legislation, which makes it illegal to harass, harm or kill them. If you are bitten by a Massasauga remain calm and call emergency services. NEVER try to catch or kill the snake, it is unnecessary, dangerous, and illegal.


               No one has died from a Massasauga bite in Ontario in more than 50 years, and only two deaths resulting from a Massasauga bite have ever been reported in the province. A snake’s rattle is made up of loosely attached pieces of keratin (the same material that our fingernails are made from) that knock against each other and create a rattle or buzzing sound when the tail is shaken. Although the Massassauga is Ontario’s only rattlesnake, however it is not the only on that vibrates its tail. The eastern Foxsnake and eastern Milksnake are non-venomous snakes that mimic the rattlesnake by quickly vibrating the tip of their tails. If the tail comes into contact with leaf litter as its vibrating, it can make a buzzing sound similar to that of a rattle snake. The Massasauga is very shy and prefers to hide or retreat from enemies rather than bite them. If threatened, it will shake its tail as a warning and strike only as a last resort to protect itself if it cannot escape. Sometimes the snake will share it hibernation sites with other hibernating snakes, amphibians and even crayfish.

               We at HRC hope you have learned a little bit more about one of Ontario’s most unique animals and see the need for its conservation. Snakes are our friends and control populations of other small mammals and rodents. The food chain would be thrown out of balance if we lost a predator such as this from our area! Keep Muskoka Great!

Since the 1900's...

Born under the name George Hutcheson, Hutcheson, Reynolds & Caswell Ltd. began providing insurance policies in Muskoka since the early 1900s. Bernard Reynolds joined the firm in the 1940s and purchased the firm from George Hutcheson in 1967. Finally, in 1980, David Caswell joined the company's ranks to complete Hutcheson, Reynolds and Caswell. We have grown along with our name and provide the same dedication to superior customer service and top-notch insurance coverage that George Hutcheson was famous for over 100 years ago.