According to Tianna Burke with the Georgian Bay Biosphere, a charity organization that works to preserve wildlife and endangered species, these rattlesnakes tend to move out of hibernation late May into early June – so if you’re at the cottage or on a hike in a wooded area, now is the time to keep your eyes out!
While the sound of a venomous snake is alarming, Burke says that these snakes have an introverted personality and generally like to keep to themselves. They have no interest in interacting with humans, and typically when you see snakes on the move, they’re just trying to get from one spot to another.
“Snakes don't attack people, they just want to be left alone,” explains Burke. “Most snake bites occur because you haven't taken precaution to see what's around you or you have gone to try and harm it, so it’s just acting in defence".
A massasauga rattlesnake (Credit: Georgian Bay Biosphere).
HOW TO IDENTIFY THE EASTERN MASSASAUGA RATTLESNAKE
You can find these snakes primarily along the eastern side of Georgian Bay and on the Bruce Peninsula, according to the Government of Ontario. Two small populations are also found in the Wainfleet Bog on the northeast shore of Lake Erie and near Windsor. The massasauga was once more widespread in southwestern Ontario, especially along the shores of the Great Lakes.
The massasauga rattlesnake was listed as threatened when the Endangered Species Act took effect in 2008. On June 27, 2014, the population was split into two, with the Great Lakes – St. Lawrence population listed as threatened, and the Carolinian population listed as endangered. (Photo credit: Georgian Bay Biosphere).
According to Burke, massasauga rattlesnakes can grow to a maximum of one-metre-long. It’s distinguished usually by the figure ‘8’ pattern on its back, its diamond shaped head, cat-like eyes, and of course, the rattle. The body is grey to dark brown with darker brown "butterfly" or "saddle-shaped" blotches down the back, with alternating blotches along the sides. If you hear the tail rattle, that means you’re too close – and take a step back.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET BIT
While it's highly unlikely to get bit by an unprovoked snake, it’s still important to know what to do if in the event you do get bitten. Medical Director of the Ontario and Nunavut Poison Centre, Dr. Margaret Thompson, says no matter what severity of the bite, it’s important to get it checked out by a professional.
She also emphasizes the importance of leaving these critters alone, and not moving them or picking them up. In fact, it’s actually illegal in Ontario to move a rattlesnake more than one kilometre from where you find them.
The massasauga rattlesnake is Ontario’s only venomous snake, though it will only bite in self-defence if it is threatened or harassed. (Photo credit: Georgian Bay Biosphere)
Dr. Thompson adds the first thing you need to do if you get bit is stay calm. The second, is to go to your nearest emergency room.
“If you are in massasauga habitat, the best thing you can do to protect yourself from any potential sites is to be aware if you are walking. The most common places people get bit is around the ankle, usually when people are walking to and from somewhere or are barefoot, and the wrist. The wrist bites are usually from risky behaviour and trying to pick up and interact with a snake, which you shouldn't be doing. Snakes act based on how you act.”
To learn more about Ontario’s only venomous snake, watch the video that leads this article.