Thu. Dec 7th, 2023
The Not-Very-Looking Doubles: The Massasauga Rattlesnake and the Northern Watersnake

Today’s post comes from the Discovery Program staff at Killbear Provincial Park.

Snakes: Some people love them, some don’t.

Regardless of how you feel about them, they are an important part of our ecosystems and you may see one when you visit us.

Here at Killbear, we get a lot of questions about snakes, and especially the difference between water snakes and rattlesnakes, since they are often confused with each other.

Visitors are concerned because they know that rattlesnakes are venomous and often assume that any snake they see must be.

Water Snakenorthern water snake

While they both have dark patterns and enjoy sunbathing on rocks, the two species are quite different!

Here are some tips and tricks to tell them apart:


The tail: Massasauga rattlesnakes, like all rattlesnakes, are well known for the distinctive rattle at the end of their tail. All other snakes have tails that taper to a point. If you can see the end of the tail, that should help you decide what species of snake it is.

snakeMassasauga rattlesnakes have bow-tie-shaped spots on their back, a large, triangular head, a narrow neck, and, of course, the characteristic rattle at the end of the tail.

If you can’t see the tail (and for the handful of “stealthy” Massasaugas that have lost their rattles and now have tails that end in a stub), look for some of the other field markings that distinguish the snake from other species (The “Field marks” are features that help identify birds, butterflies, and even snakes.

Head and neck: Massasauga rattlesnakes have a large, triangular-shaped head with a very distinctive thin neck behind it. This is because their poison glands are stored at the back of their head, in their “cheeks,” which makes that part wider, emphasizing their small neck.

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Water snakes have a head that blends smoothly into their body, with little or no neck.

Comparison of snake species.

The boss: The pattern of water snakes and rattlesnakes look very different. Massasaugas have a series of dark brown “spot” patterns on their backs. These spots are often described as bow tie or butterfly. The spots are located on the top of the rattlesnake’s back and do not reach the sides of its body.

Water snakes, on the other hand, have more of a “banded” pattern. Its dark pattern is visible on the top of its body, but you will also notice that it extends further and reaches to the sides.

Water SnakeNorthern water snakes have alternating dark and light bands along their bodies.

Water snakes can have much more color variation, sometimes being almost completely black. The pattern that snakes have helps them camouflage themselves from predators.


Where they live: Water snakes like water! They are usually swimming in a body of water or sunbathing very close. They even catch their food (frogs, tadpoles and even fish) in the water.

Water Snakenorthern water snake

Rattlesnakes, although they can swim, are less likely to be in open water and are usually found basking on rocks or in forests further inland. A little known fact about Massasaugas is that they are very loyal to their homes. Each rattlesnake will find its own hibernation site during its first winter, and many use the same site every year for the rest of their lives. During the summer months, rattlesnakes rarely travel more than 2 km from their chosen location!

How they swim: Aquatic snakes swim only with their heads above water.

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water snake in waterFun fact: The northern watersnake is one of several species of snakes in Ontario that do not lay eggs, but rather give birth.

The rest of your body will crawl below the surface of the water. Water snakes will also go underwater.

Massasaugas will have their entire body floating on top of the water when they swim, just like a pool noodle!

rattlesnake above waterMassasauga rattlesnakes swim on top of the water, like pool noodles!

Worried about encountering a rattlesnake?

Keep this in mind: Massasauga rattlesnakes are very shy. They camouflage themselves well and don’t want to have anything to do with people.

If you see a rattlesnake when you’re camping, it’s an amazing sighting! Massasaugas are a threatened species and are extremely rare to see. Eastern Georgian Bay is one of their last refuges.

Massasauga RattlesnakeMassasauga Rattlesnake

Yes, they are poisonous, but they want to save their poison for their prey (usually prairie voles). They don’t want to waste it on a human.

In fact, its rattle is a built-in warning mechanism that lets you know when you’re too close. If you hear that buzzing: stop where you are, locate the snake and avoid it. We normally recommend a distance of 2 m. It will go away on its own.

Do you love snakes? We still want you to stay 2m away to ensure you don’t stress the snake. Plus, a stressed snake is more likely to protect itself by biting!

Instead, take a photo if you can from a safe distance. We’d love for you to post the sighting on iNaturalist and/or share it with your park staff. Massasauga rattlesnakes are an at-risk species and their sightings help our conservation work.

If you see a rattlesnake on the road or at your campsite, contact park staff immediately. Observe the snake from a safe distance until park staff arrive.

Thank you for helping us in our research and protection efforts!