• All about Massasauga Rattlesnakes

    Grey-Bruce is famous for plenty of outdoor related treasures. We have rare orchids that grow on the Bruce Peninsula, a National Park, countless Provincial Parks, rare birds, unique plant species and awesome hunting and fishing opportunities. The region is famous for waterfalls and hiking trails, escarpment vistas and interesting geology. Yet there is one skinny little inhabitant to the region that often flies, or should I say “slithers” under the radar. And that is the Massasauga Rattlesnake; a rare, venomous and often misunderstood reptile that calls sections of the Bruce Peninsula home.


    My first introduction to the existence of rattlesnakes in our region happened nearly 20 years ago. I was just a young fella, wasting away a gorgeous July afternoon along the banks of the Rankin River near the public access point just east of Oliphant. I was under the supervision of my mother, who was reading a novel while I was busy catching an array of panfish from the fertile waters that feed Boat Lake and eventually the lower Sauble River. Boat bound anglers were coming and going throughout the day while I quizzed each one on the productivity of their angling efforts. The last boat to return to the launch site that afternoon provided me with some jaw dropping accounts from his adventure that day. The man claimed to have jumped out of the boat to use nature’s toilet, only to have nearly stepped on a rattlesnake. I called his bluff, and suggested that such snakes did not exist in Ontario, as any know it all 12 year old would. Sure enough he proved me wrong when he flung the dead snake out of his boat towards my feet. I carefully inspected the snake, confirmed it had a rattle on the tail, and quickly encouraged my mother to leave immediately for fear of becoming a victim of a venomous bite. It took her a few weeks of assurance that a rattlesnake would not bite me at my favorite fishing spot, and was not likely to ever see one in my lifetime. Fast-forward 20 years.

    For a number of years now, my day job keeps me working outside on forest properties from one end of Bruce County to the other. Day in and day out, I spend my time in the woods. I love my job; it keeps me in a workplace that cannot be matched by any other place of employment. Working outside is awesome, working outside for 10 months a year in Bruce County is better than that! Plenty of my work projects take place in managed forests north of Wiarton, and this allows me to get a pretty firm understanding of plants and animals across the County. It has also provided me with a front row seat to examining the Massasauga Rattlesnakes, which call the Bruce home. Between 3 employees, and myself we had 8 confirmed sightings of rattlers on one of our large properties, and another at Cyprus Lake National Park, and that is just during the month of September. Something tells me my mother was not aware of how many of these elusive reptiles roamed the Bruce. Therefore, in order to better understand our local rattlesnakes, I hit the books and spent hours researching Ontario’s Massasaugas.

    Massasaugas are considered a “pygmy” rattlesnake, meaning it rarely grows larger than 75 centimeters. The snake is usually dark brown or grey with darker butterfly shaped blotches along it’s back with smaller, alternate markings along the sides. The snake has a triangular shaped head with three stripes on each side. It also happens to have vertical pupils in the eyes (only snake in Ontario with this feature), and of course it has a rattle. Massasaugas also have facial “pits” located between their eyes and nostrils that are used to sense the heat of prey, which lumps them into the category of “pit-vipers” in the snake world. Massasaugas are Ontario’s only venomous snake and it is also considered a Species at Risk. These unique snakes shed their skin 2 to 3 times a year, adding another chamber to their rattle during each shedding. The rattle produces a loud, high pitched buzzing which some say is similar to a Cicada, a flying insect that buzzes from the treetops during the dog days of summer. Their diet consists primarily of small mammals, which they seek with their “pits”. Unlike many other snakes, Massasaugas hibernate alone, and give birth to live young anywhere from 6 to 20 in number come late summer. Wild rattlesnakes from the Bruce Peninsula have been recorded to live to 18 years of age.

    The Massasauga gets a bad rap from those who let logic slip and declare the animal a threat. Snakes are not the most liked members of the animal kingdom to start with, and being a venomous member of the reptile family only causes more hysteria among humans who have trouble grasping reality. The local rattlesnake is often on the wrong end of sightings considering most people I talk with about snakes suggest they are dangerous and only good when dispatched. Mind you many may suggest such idiocy, but very few of those making the comments have ever seen one. Fact is, there has not been a rattlesnake bite that has resulted in a fatality in Ontario in over 40 years. Only two deaths have been reported when researching the topic in our province. Hospitals receive roughly a dozen bite victims each year in the province, which is fairly miniscule considering how many people spend time outdoors in their core habitats. All of these victims are treated successfully with Anti-venom, which is kept in stock in the Province. Add to this the fact that a large percentage of Massasauga bites are “dry”, meaning they do not always inject venom.

    Being designated a Species at Risk; the Massasauga populations across the province are far from flourishing. The snakes are only found in a few areas across Ontario; the Wainfleet Bog, the Ojibway Prairie Complex, Eastern Georgian Bay and the Bruce Peninsula. The Georgian Bay and Bruce Peninsula populations account for the vast majority of these snakes in Ontario. Provincially the population is estimated at roughly 32,000 snakes, but accuracy of this count is debated. The habitat required for the snakes to survive is shrinking throughout the range. These animals need undisturbed wetlands, grasslands, forests and rocky outcrops. Urban expansion, cottage development, road traffic, forest clearing, agriculture, wetland drainage and further habitat destruction are the largest threats to the population. Being killed for just being a rattlesnake also ranks high on that list. In response, the Parks Canada, the Provincial government, and volunteer organizations have stepped up to the plate to protect the snakes and implement a Recovery Strategy for the species. Habitat conservation ranks high on the mandates of the plan, along with stiff penalties for those who needlessly kill a rattlesnake to the tune of $250,000 max penalty.

    Seeing a Massasauga in the wild requires chance, luck and time up the Bruce. The snakes are found from Wiarton north with reports at the National Park of sightings on a near daily occurrence during the busy tourist season. Ending up on the wrong end of the rattlesnakes bite is not very likely. The snake cannot strike a far distance (less than body length) and is not aggressive. The snake will rattle to announce it’s presence and often coil up and fail to move any further. The ones I have run into began rattling well before I was in spitting distance and it was a very evident to the ear. The reptile is highly misunderstood, but should be respected for its ability to do damage if harassed. Give it the respect it deserves and you will be fine if you cross paths. I have safely photographed a few individual snakes from 10 feet without ever enticing an aggressive behavior from one of them, aside from a few rattles.

    Our local population of rattlesnakes flies under the radar of nearly everyone around it. Getting the opportunity to see one on the Bruce is rare event that should be appreciated. Keep your eyes open along Highway 6 north to Tobermory and you may be surprised to see one soaking up some rays or trying to cross the road before warmer temperatures disappear for the year. Then again, you can spend entire summers hiking the Bruce and never see one. Try not to fear or persecute them for being a venomous snake, instead, understand the animals, their dependence on our local habitat and educate those who are misinformed. Who knows, you might just save a few snakes.
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