Desert massasauga rattlesnake  Sistrurus catenatus edwardsii
ESA status: petitioned for listing

Snake photoOne doesn’t usually associate romance with a rattlesnake, but the desert massasauga’s courtship behavior may change that. When courting a female, the male massasauga rubs his chin on her head and neck and loops his tail over hers in gestures that may seem familiar to any amorous human. At other times, however, they are secretive, as they are small and cryptically colored.  The desert massasauga is one of three subspecies of massasauga (eastern, western, and desert), and prefers to live in grassland habitat in the southern Great Plains and Chihuahuan Desert. For hibernation, this snake depends on rodent burrows, including those created by black-tailed prairie dogs. Desert massasaugas feed primarily on lizards, mammals, and centipedes. The proportion of food items depends on the snake’s size and age.

The range of the desert massasauga rattlesnake used to stretch from northern Mexico to eastern Colorado.  Presently their populations are fragmented across Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.  The desert massasauga has suffered declines across its range. The most serious threat to the massasauga is habitat destruction; tilling or overgrazing by livestock renders the shortgrass prairie uninhabitable for the reptile. Humans also persecute them; because rattlesnakes are venomous, many people will kill them on sight. Some go even further, destroying den sites and travelling long distances to collect snakes for “rattlesnake roundups.” During one roundup in Sweetwater, TX, over 10,000 snakes are killed over the several days of “festivities.” They are also run over on roads and taken from their prairie homes to be sold as pets or curios.

WildEarth Guardians is pressing for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect this retiring rattler under the Endangered Species Act. The massasauga is a vital strand in the web of life, and deserves protection and respect, not persecution and fear.

photo credit: © Stephen P. Mackessy