Test Your Knowledge About Rattlesnakes by Ben Hanson
One of the things often heard in the Southwest during the warm summer is watch out for snakes. This is usually followed by some sage advice about rattlesnakes and how to avoid them. Over the years, because little was known about rattlers, there have been numerous legends that people tend to accept as facts about rattlesnakes. To learn more about rattlesnakes, letís first take a little test.
True or False?
- You can tell the age of a rattlesnake by counting its rattles.
- Rattlesnakes always rattle before they strike.
- Rattlesnakes canít swim.
- Rattlesnakes have acute hearing.
- A rattlesnake can strike the full length of its body.
- A rope surrounding a campsite will keep rattlesnakes away.
- Anyone bitten by a rattlesnake will die.
- Newborn rattlesnakes are harmless.
At birth, baby rattlesnake have one button or rattle that is not exposed until it sheds its skin the first time about ten days after birth. Then, each time it sheds its skin it adds another rattle. In some areas of the country this occurs once or twice each year, but in southern areas it may be as high as four or five times a year. In addition, few rattlesnakes are able to keep their string of rattles intact. They often lose segments due to normal wear and tear, so a snake with over 10 rattles is very rare even though it may be over 20 years old.
A coiled rattlesnake may or may not "buzz" before it strikes. Why a snake rattles is not fully understood, but they donít always rattle. The best guess is that buzzing is a defense mechanism that they developed to keep from being stepped on by larger animals, such as the 100 million bison that once roamed the plains.
Rattlesnakes, like all other snakes have dry scales, they are not slippery or slimy. Scales combined with muscular action push against the ground to move the snake, and contrary to popular belief they can swim and crawl easily over ropes around camps. One way to tell if a swimming snake is a rattler is to look for the rattles, it holds them above the water when it swims.
Rattlers are pit vipers and have infrared-heat-sensing pits located between the nostrils and eyes. New studies suggest that these organs are used to detect predators and help supply information on whether the predator is small enough to be scared away, or big enough that the snake would be better off retreating (like in most cases with people). In the past it was believed that heat sensing was used basically to locate prey, but the new study suggests this is secondary to defense. In reality snakes trail their prey down using smell. The forked tongue goes out, touches the ground, then retreats into little sensory holes in the roof of the snakeís mouth so it "smells". These are the snakeís primary tools, because its vision is poorly developed and hearing is almost nonexistent.
Before striking, a rattlesnake normally coils into an S shape with its head and neck pointed at the target. They can only strike a distance of 1/3 to 1/2 of their length. They open their mouth before striking and the hypodermic like fangs swing out to inject the venom.
The venom injected is actually modified saliva that contains many digestive enzymes. Even newborn rattlers are able to inject a small amount of venom. Venom quickly kills its prey by breaking down blood cells and body tissues. It kills through internal bleeding by stopping blood clotting, by shock, and kidney or respiratory failure. This may happen quickly in small animals, but takes time in humans. Thatís the reason that, even though about 8,000 people are bitten by poisonous snakes each year in the U.S., only 10 to 15 die. The major threat of snakebite to people is shock. The "Iíve been bitten by a rattler so Iím going to die." syndrome. Remember you have a better chance of drowning in a bathtub than dying from snakebite. The best thing to do is to keep calm and get to a doctor. Even if it may take a long time to get to the doctor, you are not likely to die.
Fear of rattlesnakes has really created myths and legends. Rattlers arenít superhuman and are not an animal to be highly feared. It is also not necessary to kill them on sight, they have their place, just give them some space.
Even though most of the above statements are commonly believed about rattlesnakes, they are all false. Letís look at some of the facts about rattlers and maybe relieve some of the fear shrouding these reptiles.