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Photo credit: Stephen P. Mackessy

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

Desert massasauga rattlesnake

The desert massasauga rattlesnake is one of three subspecies of massasauga, which comprise eastern (S. catenatus catenatus), western (S. c. tergeminus), and desert varieties (S. c. edwardsii). This small, secretive snake shows a preference for prairie made up mainly of buffalograss and grama grasses and located below approximately 1,500 meters in elevation. It hibernates in rodent burrows, including those of black-tailed prairie dogs.

Desert massasaugas feed primarily on lizards, mammals, and centipedes, as well as the occasional frog or toad. The amount of food the snake eats depends on its size and age. When courting a female, the male massasauga will rub his chin on her head and neck and loop his tail over hers in an intriguing courtship behavior.

Desert massasauga rattlesnake habitat

The range of the desert massasauga rattlesnake once stretched from northern Mexico to eastern Colorado.  Presently, desert massasauga populations are fragmented across Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico.

What are the threats to the desert massasauga rattlesnake?

The most serious threat to the massasauga is habitat destruction. Tilling or overgrazing by livestock renders its shortgrass prairie home uninhabitable to 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 traveling long distances to collect snakes for “rattlesnake roundups.” During one roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, more than 10,000 snakes were killed over several days of “festivities.” People also run snakes over on roads and snatch them from their homes to be sold as pets or curios.

What WildEarth Guardians is doing to preserve the desert massasauga rattlesnake

We are pressing for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect this rattlesnake under the Endangered Species Act. The massasauga is a vital strand in the web of life, and it deserves our protection and respect.

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