Identification: Indiana's smaller rattlesnake is rare and unlikely to be encountered outside of the few remaining fens and wetlands in northern Indiana where it persists. Massasaugas, though small, are relatively heavy-bodied and typically gray to light brown in color. They have dark brown blotches down the back and a broad, dark stripe along the side of the head and through the eye. Despite their name, this small rattlesnake's rattle is only audible in large adults and is relatively quiet, like a bumblebee trapped under a glass. Adult massasaugas are small, rarely exceeding two feet (60 cm) in length.
Similar Species: There are a few gray-brown blotched snakes that are sometimes mistaken for massasaugas, including northern watersnakes, eastern hog-nosed snakes, eastern milksnakes, and western foxsnakes. Both milksnakes and foxsnakes are more slender and have smooth to weakly keeled scales and all aforementioned species lack the distinctive dark, broad stripe through the eye that massasaugas have. The small keratinous rattle at the tip of a massasauga's tail is also unique to this species in northern Indiana.
All four of Indiana's venomous snakes have thick bodies, broad chunky heads, elliptical pupils, heat sensitive pits between the eyes and nostrils, and undivided post-anal ventral scales (under the tail). However, most of these characteristics require close examination, elliptical pupils can dilate and become round, and many non-venomous snakes (especially hog-nosed snakes) will broaden and flatten their heads in self defense. Therefore, it is always best to treat any snake that you cannot positively identify as potentially venomous. Venomous snakes are best left alone as most snake bites occur when someone attempts to handle or kill the snake. Snakes are not aggressive and do not hunt, attack, or chase people when left unmolested.
Distribution: Massasaugas are found in grassy fens, wetlands, and remnant wet prairies of northern Indiana. Though they were once found throughout much of the northern half of the state and possibly further south, populations declined sharply following the extensive transformation of grasslands and wetlands in Indiana to agricultural land during the mid-1900's. They are now restricted to a few, scattered remnant populations in the northernmost part of the state and are apparently still declining. This trend of decline is not unique to Indiana and, as such, massasaugas are now listed as federally threatened and are state endangered in Indiana.