Sistrurus catenatus

How do Massasaugas Survive?


          To survive in the wilderness, organisms need many adaptations to maintain an advantage in their environment.  The massasauga is no different.  To track down its food, it has to have some wayA snake inserting its tongue into its vomero-nasal organ, which is shown connected directly to the brain. of detecting its prey from long distance.  To do this, massasaugas use something called their vomero-nasal organ, also known as Jacobson’s organ.  The organ is located on the roof of the mouth and has nerve endings that run straight to the brain.  Massasaugas collect particles in the air on their tongue when they flick it out, and then they pull their tongue back into their mouth and place it on the organ.  The organ sends the information to the brain, which then deciphers the information.  Jacobson’s organ can also be used to locate prospective mates, predators, and geographical locations, let alone prey.

            Another of the massasauga’s many adaptations is its pair of  thermal pits located on its face, one on each side of its head, lower than the eyes and half way to the nose.  These pits enable the massasauga to sense the body heat of its prey or other animals in its surroundings.  The presence of these thermal pits puts this rattlesnake into a group of snakes called the pit vipers.  Pit vipers all have similar thermal pits to enhance their senses.  These pits can also be a very helpful defensive mechanism, because the massasauga can quickly detect predators with them as well.

            Once the massasauga has spotted its prey with its thermal pits, it needs a way to capture its food.  It does this with its pair of hollow fangs and its venom.  The massasauga bites and injects the venom when its fangs are deep enough into the prey’s body.  The venom of the massasauga is actually more poisonous to mice and other small mammals in comparison to lizards or frogs because they have been the massasauga’s primary source of food.  The massasauga can inject venom at will when it bites, so if it is biting out of self defense, it can conserve venom by only biting and not injecting venom. 

             To avoid detection by prey or predators, the massasauga has employed the use of camouflage.  The brown or gray coloring of the massasauga is perfect for hiding among long grass and other vegetation.  Their camouflage also works in conjunction with their way of movement.  Since snakes have no legs, they slither through the brush.  Their camouflage makes them very hard to spot as they move along the ground.

            The most obvious adaptation of the massasauga rattlesnake would have to be its rattle.  The rattle is made of specialized scales that are made up of bone on the inside, and the rattle gets bigger every time the snake sheds its skin.  The rattle makes a rustling sound, similar to a cicada.  It primarily serves as a warning to predators to “keep away”.  Click the button below to hear a short clip of what the rattle sounds like.  It is an mp3 file so you will need some form of a media player to hear it.  This sound clip is from the US Fish and Wildlife service and can be found here, listed under the reptile category.


See? Massasaugas are cool! Click here to learn about how massasaugas use these adaptations to eat and gain all-important nutrients!