The Desert Massasauga, Sistrurus catenatus edwardsii, is a subspecies of the Massasauga rattlesnake. It is found in the southwestern United States, primarily in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. There are also small populations in Colorado, Oklahoma, California, and in northern Mexico. It is found in rocky, semi-arid and arid areas.
The Desert Massasauga has a light gray or white base color, with dark gray or gray-brown blotches. Their underside is typically entirely white. They are among the smallest of the rattlesnakes, growing to an average of 26 inches in length. They have eyes with vertical pupils and a distinctive, dark stripe that runs along the side of the head which passes over the eye. Like all rattlesnakes, they have a rattle on their tail composed of keratin, which gains a segment each time the snake shed’s its skin.
The diet of this snake consists primarily of rodents, lizards and frogs. Their rattles are significantly higher pitched than those of larger rattlesnakes, sometimes giving them the nickname buzztail. They are primarily nocturnal, especially during the summer when it is too hot for them to be active, but they will sometimes be found out sunning themselves.
Massasauga venom is more potent than that of many larger species of rattlesnake, but due to the lower yield of venom that the massasauga produces in each bite, it is typically not considered lethal in humans. However, the powerful hemotoxin can cause swelling, necrosis, and severe pain and should be treated immediately.
The Desert Massasauga is listed as a species of concern in Colorado, due to its limited range in the state, and it is protected by Arizona state law. It is listed as a sensitive species by the United States Forest Service.
Photo by LA Dawson