Eastern Massasauga Research

Massasauga Research at IPFW

The massasauga, Sistrurus catenatus, (also known as the eastern massasauga) is a rattlesnake native to the southern Canada and the midwestern United States that is in decline throughout its range. It became officially listed in September of 2016 as federally threatened by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. For more information on the recent listing, please visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s massasauga fact sheet.

Dr. Bruce Kingsbury and his students at Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) have been studying various aspects of massasauga ecology and conservation for over 15 years in Michigan. This research program has been very fruitful on a variety of fronts, including contributing to understanding the ecology of massasaugas at their northern range limit (DeGregorio 2008; DeGregorio et al. 2011a, 2011b; Ravesi et al. 2015a, 2015b, 2016; Tetzlaff et al. 2014, 2016), hibernation ecology (Smith 2009), responses to habitat alteration by timber harvest (DeGregorio 2008, Ravesi in progress), fire (Ravesi, in progress), and disease (Tetzlaff et al. 2015).








A massasauga basking on a log. Photo: © Monica Matthews

Current Research – Soft-Release Translocation

Currently and in partnership with the Department of Defense, IPFW graduate student, Jillian Josimovich, is investigating whether or not soft-release translocation, a relatively new management technique that has a track record of success for tortoises but has only recently been applied to snakes (Tuberville et al. 2005; Steen and Goodwin 2016), is a viable management tool for moving massasaugas.

Generally, translocation involves intentionally moving animals in the wild from one location to another and letting them go (i.e. hard release) for the purpose of establishing a new population, augmenting a critically small population, and/or moving at-risk animals (IUCN 2012). Unfortunately, this typically results in high mortality rates because released animals often make large homing movements that can result in mortality from vehicles or predators (Reinert and Rupert 1999; Plummer and Mills 2000). Soft-release is different in that the animals are kept for a period of time in an outdoor enclosure before being released in the hopes that they will acclimate to the environment, disperse more slowly, and be less inclined to return to their original location (Kingsbury and Attum 2009). Limited time in these soft release enclosures may help these animals to acclimate to the local environment and form an affinity with the area to prevent immediate dispersal from the release site and into potentially unsuitable surrounding habitats.

By tracking soft-released, hard-released, and control snakes found and left at the historically well-studied release site using radio-telemetry, Jillian will be able to examine the behavior and survival of each group so as to determine whether soft release is a successful, cost-effective means of mitigating conflicts between massasaugas and the military. Ultimately, she hopes her research will contribute substantially to our understanding of the pros and cons of such approaches for conserving massasaugas and, ideally, other taxa.


Soft-release pen constructed of aluminum flashing. This pen is used to acclimate translocated massasaugas to the new habitat and conditions. Photo © Jillian Josimovich


“Prince”, a male soft-released massasauga with a large food bolus after feeding. Snakes get named to help in remembering who’s who and where they were last. Photo © Monica Matthews


Jillian Josimovich radio-tracking a massasauga. Radio-tracking is done with an antenna attached to a receiver that can be adjusted to pick up snakes with transmitters of different frequencies. Photo © Monica Matthews

Current Research – Habitat Modeling

Another IPFW graduate student, Monica Matthews, is working with massasaugas on the same study as Josimovich so that she can build models to determine what types of habitats the massasaugas there prefer. Habitat models are computer-generated tools scientists use to predict where within a given area (e.g. within a certain state or region) there might be habitat that is valuable to the species in question. These models can be useful predictors for where to find a given species generally, what the best locations are for reintroducing species, and which areas should be most protected from habitat destruction (Guisan & Zimmermann 2000).

To be able to build her habitat models, Monica must track massasaugas found from over as wide of an area as possible within that same massasauga population, rather than just in the historic study area. To do this, in addition to tracking the soft-released, hard-released, and control snakes found and left at the historic release site, Monica is tracking snakes that are found near human development. She can then record information about the types of habitats that she finds the snakes in to better inform her model, which should then be able to tell her which of these features are the most important to the snakes. Previous research has shown that macrohabitat (i.e. broad habitat types like forests, grasslands, wetlands) is not the primary driver for the types of habitats that massasaugas choose, whereas microhabitat features (e.g. surrounding vegetation type and height, amount of canopy cover) have been found to be much more important (Harvey and Weatherhead 2006). Therefore, Monica is currently working on collecting as much microhabitat data as possible.


Surveying for massasaugas in the early morning, an ideal time to look for snakes that are out basking after a chilly night. Photo © Jillian Josimovich


Monica Matthews taking microhabitat and location data on a gravid female resident. Photo © Jillian Josimovich


“Erin”, a gravid female, resident massasauga in a snake bucket. Gravid females look very rotund and “bulgy” around their abdomens. Photo © Jillian Josimovich


Jillian and Monica’s 2016 field technician, Jessica Hinson, looking for new massasaugas to study in human-altered habitat. Photo © Jillian Josimovich

Additional Information

For more information about Jillian, Monica, and the other graduate students currently working in the Kingsbury lab, please visit their People Page. For more information on massasauga ecology, please take a look at the species information available through our outreach program.


DeGregorio, B. A. 2008. Response of the Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus c. catenatus) to Clear-Cutting. MS Thesis.

DeGregorio, B. A. B. Putman and B. A. Kingsbury. 2011. A Comparison of Macrohabitat Selection Metrics: Which is More Applicable to Snakes? Herpetological Conservation and Biology 6: 372-382.

DeGregorio, B. A. J. V. Manning, N. Bieser and B. A. Kingsbury. 2011. The spatial ecology of the Eastern  Massasauga (Sistrurus c. catenatus) in northern Michigan. Herpetologica 67: 71-79.

Guisan, A., & Zimmermann, N. E. (2000). Predictive habitat distribution models in ecology. Ecological modelling, 135(2), 147-186.

Harvey, D. S., & Weatherhead, P. J. (2006). A test of the hierarchical model of habitat selection using eastern massasauga rattlesnakes (Sistrurus c. catenatus). Biological Conservation, 130(2), 206-216.

International Union for Conservations of Nature (IUCN). 2012. Guidelines for re-introductions. Prepared by the IUCN/SSC Re-introduction Specialist Group. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge.

International Union for Conservations of Nature (IUCN). 2016. Sistrurus catenatus. Accessed on 29 November 2016 at http://maps.iucnredlist.org/map.html?id=64346

Kingsbury, B. A., and O. Attum. 2009. Conservation Strategies: Captive Rearing, Translocation, and Repatriation. In S. J. Mullin, & R. A. Seigel, Snakes: Ecology and Conservation (pp. 201-220). Ithaca:            Cornell University Press.

Plummer, M.V., and N.E. Mills. 2000. Spatial ecology and survivorship of resident and translocated Hognose Snakes (Heterodon platirhinos). Journal of Herpetology 34: 565-575.

Ravesi, M., Forzley, M., Tetzlaff, S, B. Kingsbury. 2015a. Sistrurus catenatus (Massasauga) Diet. Herpetological Review 46: 453-454.

Ravesi, M., Tetzlaff, S. J., B. Kingsbury. 2015b. Sistrurus catenatus (Massasauga) Diet. Herpetological Review  46: 454.

Ravesi, M., Tetzlaff, S, B. Kingsbury. 2016. Sistrurus catenatus (Massasauga) Diet. Herpetological Review 47: 153-54.

Ravesi, M. In progress. Timber Harvest and prescribed fire as tools for Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus) conservation. MS Thesis.

Reinert, H.K., and R.R. Rupert. 1999. Impacts of translocation on behavior and survival of timber rattlesnakes, Crotalus horridus. Journal of Herpetology 33: 45-61.

Smith, C. S. 2009. Hibernation of the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) in Northern Michigan. MS Thesis.

Steen, D. A., and J. C. Godwin. 2016. Observations of feeding behavior by reintroduced indigo snakes in southern Alabama. Herpetological Review 47: 11-13.

Tetzlaff, S.J., Ravesi, M.J., Kingsbury, B.A. 2014. Sistrurus catenatus catenatus (Eastern Massasauga) Diet. Herpetological Review 45(4): 712-713.

Tetzlaff, S.J., Allender, M., Ravesi, M., Smith, J. and Kingsbury, B. 2015. First report of snake fungal disease from Michigan, USA involving Massasaugas, Sistrurus catenatus (Rafinesque 1818). Herpetology Notes  8:31-33.

Tetzlaff, S, Ravesi, M., B. Kingsbury. 2016. Sistrurus catenatus (Massasauga) Activity Range Lengths. Herpetological Review 47: 154-5.

Tuberville, T.D., E.E. Clark, K.A. Buhlmann, and J.W. Gibbons. 2005. Translocation as a conservation tool: site fidelity and movement of repatriated Gopher Tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus). Animal Conservation 8: 349–358

Conservation Through Research and Education

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