Eastern Massasauga in the sultry heat of summer!

Massasauga rattlesnakes have the ability for lightning-fast, venom-packing strikes against beasts great and small. But on the rare occasion they use that ability against a human it is usually against the dominant hand of a foolishly bold and often intoxicated white male that provoked the encounter. Common sense tells us they do not have the ability to leap up and bite a hand. “Hey Joe, Watch this!” is the usual testosterone fueled behavioral misstep that leads to a bite.

Just as I sat down to polish up my final draft on this tale of rattlers buzzing in the heat of our summer I received an e-mail about a long ago rattler encounter, human provoked. Here is that quote, minus the sender’s name.

“I was about 8, so over 40 years ago. We were fishing and target shooting in a flooded area, probably good Massasauga habitat. There were lots of water snakes. I remember my dad saying, ‘That’s a rattlesnake!’ right before he shot it with one of our pellet guns. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is on killing protected snakes.”

The reminiscing E mail was correct; Massasaugas are protected by law as a Species of Special Concern. Sadly, in almost all cases when I am involved in post mortem snake identification the chopped up snake turns out to be a northern water snake or a milk snake.

Identification After The Bite

The definitive manifestation the bite was from a rattler is the presence of fang marks, localized pain and sometimes progressive edema (swelling) extending from the bite site. Using this method is rather after the fact. Other signs and symptoms of venom being injected include nausea and vomiting, weakness, tingling in the mouth and dizziness and may progress to alerted levels of consciousness, a rapid heartbeat and falling blood pressure in severe evenomation cases.

Identification Before The Bite Makes More Sense!

If you can see ‘the rattle’ and hear the buzz, safe to say you are dealing with a Massasauga. The very distinctive heat sensitive pits on the head of the rattler coupled with vertical eye slits – like a cat – is definitive for ID but you are way too close for safety in that case.

A recent issue of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine teaches a new method of 100 % certainty for venomous snake ID in North America. It is not a technique that can be used by someone without solid knowledge of snake anatomy and the observer must see both the top and bottom sides of the snake; thus it is a perfect method for a knowledgeable medical professional, herpetologist or naturalist to identify a headless snake. All rattlesnakes have ridged or keeled scales on the top side as well as a single row of subcaudal scales on the bottom side between the vent and the rattle. Non venomous snakes have a double row on the bottom and smooth scales on top. This method does not apply to exotic species or the venomous coral snake of the south.


Our pit viper is generally docile and has evolved a pattern of live and let live when encountering non prey species. When hungry they use their heat-seeking pits as receptors to track down warm blooded prey. But when provoked by the two footed beast known as man, the rattler does not need the heat receptors, it changes it attitude and will strike faster than a hand or prodding foot can retreat. When startled they do not always rattle the tail—they strike!

Massasaugas And Medical Profession

Massasaugas are found in Michigan. You knew that. Some doctors apparently do not.

I emphasize this point for I also work in a busy urban hospital emergency room as a paramedic several days a week. Late last summer a symptomatic rattlesnake bite came through the ER door. The nurse in triage without hesitation assured the patient—that knew otherwise- “There are no rattlesnakes in Michigan” as she examined with puzzlement a single puncture mark on a thumb and significant swelling. “What really happened?” She prodded. I happened to walk by triage just as the incident was unfolding and intervened bringing the patient straight back to the treatment area. The next medical person to see the patient was a fourth year medical student. The medical student looked at me with a ‘You got to be kidding?’ expression and whispered, “Rattlesnakes in Michigan?” I told him to Google that fact. A few minutes later medical care was up to speed. The patient went home three days later. I bet if you ask your doctor if Michigan has rattlesnakes they too may say no, unless of course they are an outdoorsman or woman. Ask them!

Massasauga Facts

• Massasaugas are protected by law in the State of Michigan.

• They will ignore or retreat from a threat if at all possible.

• They do not always vibrate their rattler in a warning buzz.

• When not hibernating they are often travelling.

• The do not always inject venom when they strike.

• Massasaugas do not follow text book behavior in all cases; they do as they please.

Late Summer

Summer heat baked the landscape early this year and may have altered rattlesnake behavior. Massasaugas usually live in shallow wetland areas with grassy uplands nearby—a perfect hunting ground for mice. But extreme heat has changed the behavior patterns of all creatures; upright humans and belly to the ground reptiles included. Herpetologist Jim Harding stated “A nicely warmed up snake might be more willing to be defensive if confronted by humans” and then added, “What I do not know is whether the very hot weather would induce them to stay in the cooler shaded wetland rather than making their summer migration to upland fields.” What does this mean for you? It means be wary.


By early September Massasaugas should be slithering their way back to their wetlands and it is there they seek out their hibernacula: moist crayfish burrows where they spend the entire winter in a state of near suspended animation. And that takes me to an encounter last autumn at Indian Springs Metropark in Oakland County on a cool but sunny autumn day. Signs along the popular paved hike-bike trail advised: Massasauga Habitat- Remain On The Trail.

Ten minutes after starting to walk I photographed a rattler on the trail soaking up heat from the dark pavement as a small crowd of humans gathered. Perhaps the snake read the sign and decided to stay on the trail as well.

Rattler Bites

DNR Wildlife biologist Julie Oaks empathizes that most rattlesnake encounters in Michigan occur in late August but as of press deadline time at the end of July I have already learned of young man bitten on the hand in Oakland County when reaching in a wood pile to retrieve a ball and of a dog bitten on the face when he trotted over to investigate a sunning rattler next to a garage. Both victims are doing just fine. A medical flight crew in Saginaw County shared other early season rattlesnake bite tales with me. By the time you read these words it is safe to assume that others have encountered our swamp rattler.

Special Operations Venom Response

I contacted Lt. Scott Mullin of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue’s Special Operations Venom Response team for his take on our Michigan rattlers. These highly skilled and specialized Florida firefighter/medics deal with numerous venomous and potentially hazardous creatures. (You may have seen their team in action on the Animal Planet!) When it comes bite avoidance in the heat of the Michigan summer Mullin advises, “Don’t step blindly over a log or large rock that could be giving cover to a Massasauga.” And their records show that most venomous snake bites in the US occur when people are looking to capture or kill the snake. Mullin added, “Most snake bite victims have been drinking alcohol or using some other substance that lessons the inhibitions and reaction time.”

So very true, I add.

Lt. Mullin stressed the importance of a rapid start of the EMS system. “What the victim needs is antivenom to stop the affects of the venom. Time is tissue; the longer it takes to get the antivenom started the more tissue will be damaged. Antivenom does not reverse the damage that has been done. It only stops further damage.” One of the first things that must to be done is to get the victim to the most appropriate medical facility. Mullin also suggests a call to Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 to locate Crofab, the antivenom that will be needed. And he reminds us all that bottom line is clear, “The eastern Massasauga rattlesnake just wants to be left along and blend in with the environment.”

First Aid Basics

The definite treatment for a massasauga rattlesnake bite is antivenom but there is much you should and should not do in the field to prevent tissue damage to limbs and digits and protect your health and well-being and have a speedier recovery. It has been noted that massasaugas often do not inject venom and some herpetologist believe almost 70% of rattler bites against humans are ‘dry’ bites.

However, regardless of how the body first responds to a rattlesnake bite, ALL rattlesnake bite victims need to be seen by qualified medical professionals in an emergency facility.

1) Get out of striking range to avoid a second bite.

2) A ‘dead’ rattlesnake can strike again. A severed head has the ability to ‘bite’ with a reflex action for a short time after decapitation. Not a myth!

3) Act swiftly and stay calm—those two can go hand in hand.

4) Splint the limb to avoid excess movement and be sure not to make the splint tight, swelling may occur if venom was injected.

5) Remove all jewelry on the affected body limb immediately.

6) Reassure the victim and if you are the victim reassure yourself!

7) If in the woods start walking slowly out to a pick up point unless instructed by EMS to stay put.

8) Do NOT cut or suck at the wound.

9) Do NOT use suction devices.

10) Do NOT apply ice to the wound.

11) Do NOT apply a tourniquet (A wilderness medicine trained EMT and some urban paramedics are knowledgeable on the application of a loosely applied constriction band that is applied just firmly enough to occlude superficial veins and lymph passages. A piece of clothing or a rope may be used and should be loose enough where a finger can slide under. This technique is considered controversial by some medical professionals because it concentrates the venom in the affected area.)

12) Do NOT drink any alcohol or take pain medications.

Jonathan Schechter is a naturalist/paramedic in Brandon Township and a member of the Wilderness Medical Society and has been recently certified as a Wilderness EMT. E-mail:oaknature@aol.com. Special thanks to the Miami-Dade Fire Department.