Photo © Wyman Meinzer
Great River Mouth
The petite prairie massasauga is a lesser-known Texas rattler.
by Paul Crump
While many Texans are familiar with the legendary western diamondback rattlesnake, we actually have eight species of rattlesnake that reside in our state. On the other end of the rattlesnake size spectrum is the diminutive prairie massasauga (pronounced mas-uh-saw-guh). The unusual name originates from a Native American word meaning “great river mouth,” perhaps because it was seen most often in grasslands that surround rivers and lakes.
The prairie massasauga has patchy distribution across the western half of the state. Snakes are usually found along roadways and away from their normal, natural environment, making it difficult for biologists to study their habitat use, movements and other attributes. Like all pit vipers, the massasauga is venomous.
The snake’s preferred habitat is dry grasslands, where it eats a variety of mammals and lizards. In other parts of their range outside Texas, massasaugas make seasonal migrations of up to a couple miles from wintering hibernation grounds to summer feeding and mating areas. Not bad for a snake that rarely gets longer than 18 inches.
It is during these seasonal migrations that they are most frequently encountered, and sometimes killed, on roads.
Male rattlesnakes compete for the attention of females with an elaborate game of “Who’s the longest snake?” Massasaugas are no different. They arch up half their bodies off the ground and attempt to twist, push and wrestle their rival to the ground. Courtship and breeding has been observed in both the spring and the fall.
Like all rattlesnakes, massasaugas give birth to live young, with litter size between two and six. The females hang out with their offspring for five to seven days, usually until the young snakes go through their first skin shedding. Massasaugas are short-lived snakes, with very few surviving until 5 years old. The much larger timber rattlesnakes, by comparison, can live up to 30 years.
The most critical problems for Texas’ massasauga populations are the loss of native grasslands through conversion to agriculture, overgrazing of livestock and shrub encroachment.
Another species, the eastern massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus), occurs in the northeastern United States and is listed as a threatened species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.