Respect the Rattlesnake

Scared of rattlesnakes? You’re not alone. Many people fear or simply misunderstand these incredible animals. Legend and lore may talk up the fearsome qualities of these venomous pit vipers, but ultimately humans are much more of a threat to these animals than they are to us. At the Desert Museum, we believe the best way to combat this fear is to get to know them a little better! They are fascinating animals that play an important role in the ecosystem, and they pose less of a danger to humans than you might think. Snake-skeptics, stick with us, and see if these eleven reasons to respect rattlesnakes will shift your perspective!

Baby western diamondback rattlesnake. Image by Howard Byrne, Curator of HIIZ.

1. They really just want to be left alone!

While rattlesnake bites are dangerous, rattlesnakes are not aggressive and bite only in self-defense. In fact, they have many defensive strategies including slithering away, freezing, hiding, hissing, coiling, and rattling, and will employ these before biting unless they perceive no other option. Furthermore, since the venom glands are surrounded by voluntary muscles, rattlesnakes, even young ones, can choose whether or not to deliver venom or administer a “dry bite.” 

2. Everyday life poses way more danger than the rare rattlesnake bite!

The best way to avoid a bite is to remain vigilant of your surroundings and give them space. It’s worth noting that many rattlesnake bites are the result of deliberate provocation, sometimes involving intoxicated men, and accidental bites are often preventable. Keep your wits about you and respect the snake by leaving it alone and following basic precautions.

Rattlesnake Safety 101 is relatively straightforward: Do not touch or handle any snake (dead or alive), wear leather gloves when handling brush, wear boots and long pants when working outdoors, and always look where you’re stepping or putting your hands. Back away slowly if you do encounter one, and if you find a rattlesnake on your property, the best option for the snake is to just let it be! If it’s coiled, and waiting for prey, keep tabs on it—and keep your pets away. If it’s outstretched, leave it alone for a few minutes, and it should move off on its own. Keep in mind that professional removal can sometimes cost the snake its life if done improperly, so we recommend this only as a last resort. (Interested in learning more? Medical toxinologist Dr. Leslie Boyer breaks down Arizona rattlesnake bite statistics—and the results are fascinating. Read here and here.)

3. Heat vision is the underdog of superpowers.

Rattlesnakes are one of the few animals with dual vision systems. Like other pit vipers, rattlesnakes have heat-sensing organs called loreal pits located between the nostril and the eye. They perceive the quality of heat in their environment as a heat map, which overlays what we know as vision (from eyesight). These super sensitive organs can detect extremely small differences in temperature, to the one-thousandth of a degree centigrade in close range, and can detect the heat from a candle flame from nearly thirty feet away!

4. Rattlesnakes use their rattles to warn away danger.

We don’t know about you, but we’re pretty grateful that rattles exist, as they do an excellent job of warning us we’ve gotten too close. Rattles are made of interlocking rings of keratin, the same stuff that makes up our fingernails and hair. When the hollow keratin segments shake, they knock against each other and produce the unmistakable hiss and rattle sound. Rattlesnakes can shake their tailfeathers – er, rattles – more than sixty times a second! A new rattle segment grows in with every shed, which can happen as often as four-five times a year but varies by individual. Age, health, diet, nutrition, and genetics all contribute to rattle growth rates. Plus, they sometimes fall off, so the rattle is not a good indicator of age.

A patternless western diamondback shows off its rattle. Video by Frank Armendarez.

5. Rattlesnake venom gets the job done quickly and efficiently.

While many other hunters must expend energy giving chase and attempting to subdue their prey, rattlesnakes can grab a meal just by waiting patiently and striking when the moment is right. Their venom is an incredibly complex and varying cocktail. Some venom mixtures contain hemotoxins that break down cells and tissues, anticoagulants to cause circulatory arrest, neurotoxins that disrupt the nervous system of their prey, as well as other toxin types. By the time the animal has died and the rattlesnake begins to eat, its insides have already been pre-digested. Meat smoothie, yum!

6. Rattlesnake mamas give live birth – and some even care for their young.

Reptiles don’t have a reputation for motherly care, but rattlesnakes bring these preconceived notions into question. Herpetologists have observed that female Arizona black rattlesnakes stay with their young until they complete their first shed, about a week. Future research in the area may well lead to more discoveries like this. And after the young strike off on their own, a wild rattlesnake can live as long as fifteen-twenty years if they’re lucky!

Arizona black rattlesnake. Image by TheLoneStarState via Wikimedia Commons.

7. Rattlesnakes appreciate the coziness of a winter den.

Western Diamondback rattlesnakes spend most of their lives alone, but sometimes hibernate through the winter in communal snake dens to keep warm. Not all rattlesnakes hibernate communally, though. Many rattlesnakes will overwinter in burrows created by other animals. Prairie dog burrows offer pre-fabricated accommodations for prairie rattlesnakes, and they will often move into these burrows for the winter, forcing the prairie dogs to move on. Others such as the sidewinder will find a rodent or other small animal burrow to use. While claustrophobia affects many humans, rattlesnakes feel safest in tight, dark spaces! In fact, keeping captive snakes in too large of an enclosure can stress them out, unless they have smaller, tighter spaces to use within to feel safe. Out in the open, they are in danger of being stepped on or hunted by animals like hawks, roadrunners, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and other snakes like kingsnakes.

Santa Catalina Island rattlesnakes. Image by Jay Pierstorff.

8. Rattlesnake fangs function like moveable hypodermic needles.

Their long hollow fangs lie parallel to the jawline when their mouth is closed, but rotate on a hinge perpendicular to the upper jaw when the mouth is opened. Venom is rapidly delivered from venom producing glands into hollow fangs which are then injected hypodermically (underneath the skin). Pretty cool!

9. Rattlesnakes help keep the rodent population at bay.

Without predators like rattlesnakes and birds, would rodents rule the world? It’s possible! We’re (mostly) kidding, but to many humans this is good news for preventing rodents from taking up residence on their property, and is a great reason to let the rattlesnakes do their thing. Many predators like snakes are also prey to animals higher up the food chain. Take a link out of this chain and the cycle of nutrients—and of life—is disrupted. These disruptions can cause ripple effects that degrade biodiversity in the ecosystem. In addition to rodents like mice, rats, and squirrels, rattlesnakes also eat lizards, birds, insects, and other arthropods, like centipedes!

Northern Mexico rattlesnake. Image by Jay Pierstorff.

10. The males compete in dance-offs to win mating rights!

Fine, “dance-off” might be a slight exaggeration, but their battles are still fascinating to watch! When two males come across each other during breeding season, they raise the upper third of their bodies up off the ground and attempt to knock the other down. The match goes on until one gives up, sometimes lasting thirty minutes or more.

11. The Sonoran Desert is home to more species of rattlesnakes than any other region in the world.

Whether you grew up in the region or chose to move here, rattlesnakes are our neighbors, and we should treat our neighbors with respect. With around thirteen species and a few more subspecies in the northern part of the Sonoran Desert, there’s plenty more to learn about these remarkable reptiles. Each species has distinct patterns, behaviors, specialties, and habitat preferences. Even individual rattlesnakes can sport unique markings! Common (in their ranges) species like the Western diamondback, the Mojave rattlesnake, the prairie rattlesnake, the black-tailed rattlesnake, and the sidewinder all fulfill their ecological niche – and look awesome doing it!

We hope you learned something new about these misunderstood creatures. Curious for more? Visit the Reptile Hall at the Museum, and stop by Gift Shop to pick up a nature guide!

Written by Elena Makansi.

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