Laurence M. Klauber

Mr. Rattlesnake

"It is almost a universal fact that the rattlesnake will do all that it reasonably can to avoid man. The rattler's first wish is to get away from anything as large and as potentially dangerous as man. If the snake strikes, it is because it is cornered or frightened for its own safety."

-- Laurence M. Klauber

Born in San Diego, California in 1883, Laurence M. Klauber became known as theLaurence M. Klauber world's foremost authority on the subject of rattlesnakes, in spite of the fact he was not a herpetologist by profession, and did not begin a serious study of reptiles until he was in his forties.

Prior to his life as "Mr. Rattlesnake," Klauber rose through the ranks of San Diego Gas Electric Company from an electric sign salesman to become president, then chairman and CEO. He also held 7 U.S. patents for his electrical inventions. His herpetology career began in 1923 when the newly-formed San Diego Zoo, having acquired several snakes that were unidentified, asked Klauber, because of his boyhood interest in reptiles, to identify them.

"I gladly offered my services, and as I look back on it," Klauber later recalled, "I'm sure I identified all of them incorrectly! But I've been working with the zoo ever since, and from that day on my interest in knowing more about reptiles has continued." Klauber volunteered to become the San Diego Zoo's first Curator of Reptiles, and he was on the board of the San Diego Zoo for more than 20 years. His fascination with snakes and lizards eventually brought him international scientific recognition.

Klauber devoted the next 35 years of his life researching rattlesnakes. During those decades, he corresponded with more than 5,000 observers throughout the world and read another 10,000 scientific papers, newspaper accounts, magazine articles, and book references about the rattlesnake.

He spent uncounted thousands of hours collecting, handling, classifying and dissecting rattlesnakes, which brought him face to face with more than 12,000 of them. He "milked" the venom from some 5,000 rattlesnakes and pickled more than 35,000 reptiles in the basement of his home above San Diego Bay. He was bitten twice, a fact he was not proud of.

He wrote 100 scientific papers on the systematics of Southwest snakes and lizards and described 53 new species and subspecies of reptiles and amphibians. He was honored by other scientists with 14 new genera, species and subspecies named for him.
In 1956, Klauber published his definitive, 2-volume, Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories and Influence on Mankind. This 1,533-page work was immediately recognized as the most complete and authoritative resource ever written on the rattlesnake and has been required reading by every serious herpetologist since.

Before Klauber's 35 years of field and laboratory research appeared in print, there was no comprehensive study on the habits and life history of the rattlesnake. One of Klauber's most important contributions was his application of mathematical statistics to rattlesnake classification, which made it possible for positive identification of any rattler by the pattern and count of the snake's scales.

Desert Snake Collecting

"Years ago I learned that I could collect about 3 times as many snakes in the desert for the same output of time -- and remember that I did my field collecting mostly on weekends -- as I could in the foothills or brush-covered valleys," Klauber stated late in his life.

"I also learned that 6 or 7 weeks during the spring would provide more snakes for my collecting sacks than the rest of the year put together. In the desert areas and elsewhere, rattlers are most active in the first warm weeks of spring. Certainly they may move about all year long, but it is in March and April that they are most likely to be encountered."

As a snake collector, Klauber knew that the night hours are far more productive than daylight hours. "The average desert camper, using normal caution, has an excellent chance of going through life without ever seeing a rattler in the wild." Klauber maintained. But he warned, "Wear boots and protective clothing that covers the legs if you are going to wander at night -- even in the area of the campfire -- in the desert during the spring months."

Before Laurence M. Klauber's death in 1968 at the age of 84, he donated 36,000 reptile and amphibian specimens to the San Diego Natural History Museum, including the most comprehensive collection of rattlesnakes in the world. His extraordinary herpetological library of 1,462 books, 19,000 pamphlets, 20 drawers of hand-written catalog cards, and 198 looseleaf binders of scientific notes, were donated to the museum as well.
In 1992, the University of California Press published an updated second edition of Klauber's 2-volume magnum opus, with a new foreword by Harry W. Greene that discusses the initial impact and continuing value of Klauber's work and recounts some of the advances in knowledge of rattlesnake biology during the previous 25 years.

-- Bob Katz

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The Rattlesnake

The Rattlesnake Video
Rattlesnakes come in 16 distinct varieties. There are numerous subspecies and color variations, but they are all positively identified by the jointed rattles on the tail. Take a look at a few of them, and listen to their rattle!

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