Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Conservation and Research

What is an Eastern Massasauga

Massasauga rattlesnakeThe eastern massasauga is a small, stout bodied rattlesnake averaging 20 to 30 inches in total length. Its color pattern is a series of large, dark brown to black, middorsal blotches and two to three rows of lateral blotches upon a light gray color. The tail has three to six dark cross-bands, while the belly is black, occasionally mottled with white. The young, approximately nine inches long when born, have a yellow-tipped tail with a “button” rather than a fully-developed functioning rattle. The small rattle sounds like the buzz of an insect and is barely audible beyond 5 feet. Although massasaugas are venomous, they have a very mild-mannered temperament. Most massasaugas will rely on their camouflage and remain quiet and still when approached. They rarely strike unless handled.


What Is All “The Buzz” About?

close-up of the rattle of a massasaugaThe dramatic decline of the eastern massasauga is alarming! In Pennsylvania, the species is classified as a critically imperiled endangered species. On the federal level, the massasauga is a candidate for listing as an endangered species. Recent studies by Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program staff have shown that only four of 19 historic populations in Pennsylvania still exist. Damming, road building, surface mining, and urbanization have destroyed large amounts of Pennsylvania’s massasauga habitat, and the remaining open habitat is threatened by becoming overgrown by trees and shrubs.

The massasauga is important to all citizens of Pennsylvania because it represents an essential component of Pennsylvania’s wildlife resources, biodiversity, and natural heritage. Snakes, and specifically massasaugas, are a vital part of our ecosystem. The massasauga can be considered an “umbrella” species; protecting an umbrella species potentially protects other species sharing all or some of the same environmental requirements. Many species, such as the massasauga, are also uniquely important as indicators of environmental quality and function as environmental monitors. They also control the rodent population, thereby controlling rodent-carried diseases. Breakthroughs in the medical field have even resulted in medications for hypertension and diabetes from rattlesnake venom!

There are many direct and indirect benefits to conserving this species in Pennsylvania. Yet these docile and ecologically important creatures are in great jeopardy. Without immediate conservation of critical habitat for the massasauga, remaining populations may be lost in the near future.

For more information, download the brochure: A Landowner’s Guide to the Eastern Massasauga in Pennsylvania: Management & Protection.

VIDEO: Zoologist Ryan Miller explains how WPC protects this endangered snake through research and PIT tagging (micro-chipping) in this seven-minute YouTube video.


What Can You Do?

One way to permanently preserve massasauga habitat, while keeping the property in private ownership, is through a conservation easement. A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between the landowner and a land trust, such as the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, that limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values, such as the conservation of critical massasauga habitat. Every easement is tailored to the property and to the interests of the landowner. Typically, with a donation of conservation easements the landowner realizes a significant income tax deduction.

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy can provide a wide range of conservation options to landowners interested in protecting their land permanently. We invite you to contact a Western Pennsylvania Conservancy land protection specialist to discuss your conservation goals and learn about the services we can provide. The drastic decline of the massasauga is alarming, but you can make a lasting difference by helping us protect them. Contact WPC for more information.

If you own land with suitable habitat for massasauga in Pennsylvania and are interested in protection and/or management for the species, please contact Jane Menchyk at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy for more information.


For More Information & Technical Assistance contact:

Western Pennsylvania Conservancy
800 Waterfront Drive
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 288-2777 x2333 or x2346

Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission
Division of Habitat Management
(814) 359-5119

For PFBC Regional Habitat Biologists, see