Featured Creature: Rattlesnake

Photo by Rick Fridell

What creature has incredible flexibility, prevents the spread of diseases, and is not as dangerous as often portrayed?


Photo by Rick Fridell

I’m a firm believer in perfect timing. I don’t believe in coincidences. Instead, I believe that things happen when they’re meant to be, and that’s exactly how it felt when I encountered a rattlesnake. 

Once I started getting into wildlife photography, I wanted to capture a wide range of species. Birds and squirrels tend to be easier to find and take shots of, but more elusive animals, specifically predators, are harder to capture. Hike after hike, I told myself that this would be the hike when I spot a snake and get a picture. And hike after hike, I failed to find any snakes. However, on one special, sunny hike, I decided to let go of any expectations and just enjoy the scenery. That’s the day I found a snake. As soon as I appreciated whatever Mother Nature had to offer that day, she gifted me with a cherished encounter. 

Photo by Tania Roa

The sensei of senses

Rattlesnakes breathe through their nostrils, and they smell through their mouths. Their forked tongues collect molecules in the air and bring them up to the roof of their mouths, where the Jacobson’s Organ is located. This organ, shared by all reptiles, has special receptors that allow them to smell. 

Although all reptiles have some similarities, rattlesnakes are set apart by their forward facing eyes. This gives them a different range of vision, making them excellent hunters as they strike with extreme accuracy. Rattlesnakes also sense vibrations in the ground that detect even the tiniest of movements. Unfortunately for mice, even their best attempt at tiptoeing will be detected by this predator. 

On top of these extraordinary abilities, rattlesnakes have another special organ, called Loreal Pits, that gives these reptiles infrared night vision. This means that they can sense temperature changes, no matter how small. Despite the inability to see in the dark, rattlesnakes use their infrared night vision to maintain their striking accuracy after sunset. By detecting a warm body amidst the cold night air, they can continue their highly successful hunting tactics in the dead of night. 

Photo from Lake County Records

Venomous, not poisonous

Poisonous animals are unsafe to eat due to high concentrations of certain toxins. When ingested, these toxins can be fatal. Rattlesnakes, though, are not poisonous – they’re venomous. This means that they’re edible, and humans do eat them, but they also have the ability to inject venom if they choose to do so. This distinction is important because snakes often have a reputation for being deadly and dangerous to humans. In reality, we humans may be more of a predator to rattlesnakes than they are to us. 

Rattlesnakes inject venom through their fangs. Their fangs are hollow and long, and can be grown out again if they break. When fangs inject venom into an animal, the prey immediately becomes immobilized, and then the snake swallows the prey whole. Adult rattlesnakes are experts at judging how much venom to inject into an animal. A smaller body will require less venom, and if the bite is only meant to be a warning to a potential threat, rattlesnakes may inject no venom at all. However, younger rattlesnakes still have a lot to learn, so they are less likely to adequately judge how much venom to inject. In other words, the smaller the rattlesnake, the more danger you’re in. 

Although a rattlesnake’s bite can be deadly for humans, only about 1% of bites lead to deaths. More than half of rattlesnake bites do not inject venom into humans, since they are using it as a warning rather than as a means of immobilizing prey. If given enough space and time to move into hiding, rattlesnakes avoid biting altogether. Their first line of defense is to stay still or find cover. If they still feel threatened, they’ll shake their tail back and forth to create the infamous rattling sound, as a warning to stay away. If they see that a potential threat ignores the warning, they may look for further cover before deciding to strike and bite. All of these defense mechanisms demonstrate how nonthreatening rattlesnakes are when given sufficient space.

Rattlesnakes prefer not to use their energy striking and biting if you aren’t prey, and they really don’t want to use their limited supply of venom on a non-potential meal. Although rattlesnakes can replenish their venom supply, their glands take time to recover – time that an ambush predator doesn’t have if they wish to score a meal. 

Watch this video to see how a rattlesnake’s tail muscles are contracted in order to make their famous sound (that resembles a baby rattle, hence the name):

Ecosystem keeper

As predators, rattlesnakes are important for maintaining prey populations. Mice and other rodents, creatures notorious for carrying diseases, are staple foods for these reptiles. By consuming rodents, rattlesnakes conserve the health of various species and reduce the spread of diseases. Rattlesnakes, like other predators, play an important role in ecosystems ranging across the Americas.

By Tania Roa