Abstract The life history and ecology of the massasauga Sistrurus catenatus, an endangered rattlesnake, was studied from 1979 to 1983 at the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Missouri, USA. Except for tail length, this population exhibits little sexual dimorphism. Massasaugas are active from April to October, and are primarily diurnal, except in summer. Snakes are found mainly in a cordgrass prairie in spring and autumn, utilising drier, upland areas in summer. Mean brood size for this population was 6·35, and there was a significant positive relationship between brood size and female body size. Although this species apparently demonstrates considerable geographic variation in reproductive potential, the significance of this variation cannot be currently assessed. Growth rates, estimated from size-frequency data, suggest an age of maturity of 3–4 years for females. Massasaugas at Squaw Creek feed mainly on rodents and other snakes. Current refuge practices, such as controlled burning of the prairie and unrestricted visitor usage, may have significant negative impacts on Sistrurus populations. Recommendations for mitigating these impacts are provided.