Rattlesnakes

Genus Crotalus

Introduction to Rattlesnakes

Rattlesnakes are venomous snakes belonging to the genera Crotalus and Sistrurus. Known for their distinctive rattle at the end of their tails, these snakes are a crucial part of the ecosystem, controlling rodent populations. This guide provides comprehensive information on rattlesnake identification, behavior, habitat, and safety measures to prevent rattlesnake bites.

Rattlesnake Identification

Rattlesnakes can be identified by their triangular heads, vertical pupils, and the segmented rattle at the tip of their tails. They have heat-sensing pits between their eyes and nostrils, which help them detect warm-bodied prey. Common species include the Eastern Diamondback (Crotalus adamanteus) and the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) .

 

Photo Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Rattlesnake Behavior

Rattlesnakes exhibit fascinating behavior patterns. They are generally solitary and prefer to avoid human contact. Their predatory behavior includes a rapid strike to inject venom into their prey, which is then released to prevent retaliation. Rattlesnakes are also known for their defensive behavior, where they rattle their tails to warn potential threats .

Rattlesnake Habitat

Rattlesnakes are found in diverse habitats, from deserts to forests. They prefer areas with ample cover, such as rocks, shrubs, and tall grasses. In warmer climates, they are more active at dawn, dusk, and night to avoid overheating. During colder months, they may enter a state of brumation in dens .

Rattlesnake Bite Prevention

Preventing rattlesnake bites involves being aware of your surroundings and taking precautions. Wear sturdy boots and loose-fitting pants when hiking in snake-prone areas. Stick to well-used trails and avoid tall grass and underbrush. If you encounter a rattlesnake, remain calm, back away slowly, and give the snake space to retreat

What to Do If Bitten by a Rattlesnake

If bitten by a rattlesnake, seek immediate medical attention. Keep the bitten limb immobilized and at heart level. Do not attempt to suck out the venom or apply a tourniquet. Remain calm to slow the spread of venom and avoid additional bites by moving to a safe location What are the symptoms of a rattlesnake bite?

 

 

 

Interesting Rattlesnake Facts

  • Rattlesnakes can control the amount of venom they inject, and some bites are "dry" with no venom.
  • They have a slow metabolism and only need to eat every two to three weeks.
  • The rattle is made of keratin and grows as the snake sheds its skin.
  • Rattlesnakes play a vital role in controlling rodent populations, which helps maintain ecological balance .

Rattlesnake Safety Tips

  • Always be alert and watch where you step or place your hands.
  • Do not handle or provoke rattlesnakes.
  • Educate children about the dangers of rattlesnakes and teach them to avoid these snakes.
  • Keep pets on a leash when hiking in areas known for rattlesnakes and consider rattlesnake avoidance training for dogs

 

Photo Desert Sidewinder

 

Rattlesnake Care

For those interested in keeping rattlesnakes as pets, it is crucial to understand their specific care requirements. Rattlesnakes need a secure enclosure, appropriate temperature and humidity levels, and a diet of small mammals. Always handle them with extreme caution and respect their natural behaviors.


Rattlesnakes have the following physical characteristics:

  • Broad, "triangular" head
  • Eyes have vertical "cat-like" pupils
  • Covered in scales that are a variety of colors/patterns
  • Scales are keeled, with a raised ridge in the center of each
  • Body is heavy or thick (fat) in appearance
  • Large tubular fangs in mouth that fold out when the mouth opens
  • Mouth is like a hinge, opening 180 degrees
  • Blunt tail with jointed rattle (Note: baby rattlesnakes don't have rattles and some adult snakes may break or lose their rattles)
  • In ideal habitats where there is a constant, abundant supply of small rodents, the rattlesnake sometimes attains a length of five feet, but the average adult size is between three to four feet.

 

photo rattlesnake rattle on tail

Rattlesnake Range: While most rattlers are concentrated in the southwestern United States, they extend north, east and south in diminishing numbers and varieties. Every contiguous state has one or more varieties of rattlesnake. The rattlesnake is found in many different biomes, ranging from along the coast at sea level, to inland prairies and desert areas, and all the way to mountains at elevations of more than 10,000 feet.

Behavior of Rattlers: In the northern areas of their range, and at higher elevations, rattlesnakes congregate in the fall at crevices in rocky ledges to hibernate for the winter. They return to these locations annually. These spots are known as snake dens.

When temperatures begin to warm in April, the rattlesnakes come out of hibernation. They remain near the den entrance for a few days, sunning themselves, then make their way to their summer habitats.

Most snakes are secretive in their summer activities, hunting at night and remaining inactive and out of sight for days at a time during the digestive period, after eating a squirrel or small rabbit.

Consequently, more snakes are seen in the spring and fall migrations to and from their winter homes.

Rattlesnakes are cold-blooded (ectothermic) and they rely on external sources to regulate their body temperature. When rattlesnakes are too hot they retreat into the shade or into a burrow. When a rattlesnake is too cold they sun themselves or find a surface, such as a paved road, to absorb the heat from the asphalt. It is common to find snakes on the road in the evening hours as they attempt to warm their bodies by lying on asphalt or concrete paved areas.

Life Cycle of Rattlesnakes: While some types of snakes lay eggs, a rattlesnake's young are born alive. The rattlesnake does have eggs, but the eggs are carried inside the female's body. Once the eggs are fertilized, they are carried for approximately 90 days. The eggs hatch inside the rattler's body, then she gives birth to her young. A reproductive system of this type is called ovoviviparous.

Rattlesnakes reach sexually maturity at about three years of age. Mating usually occurs in the spring after emerging from hibernation, but can also occur in the fall. During the process of mating, the female rattlesnake is passive while the male crawls on top of her. Making jerking motions with the hind portion of his body, the male presses his tail beneath the female's tail to inseminate her. The male continuously flicks his tongue throughout the mating process which can continue for several hours or more. Females are able to store the semen for months, allowing them to fertilize the ova sometimes six months later. The female rattler may carry from four to 25 eggs, from which an average of nine or ten young are born live. A female rattlesnake usually reproduces every two or three years. Young are usually born between August and October.

The newborn rattlesnake is about ten inches long and has a small horny button on the tip of its tail. Rattler babies have venom, short fangs and are dangerous from birth. In fact, they are more pugnacious than the adults. Although unable to make a rattling sound, the youngsters throw themselves into a defensive pose and strike repeatedly when disturbed.

Young rattlers are completely independent of the mother. They remain in the area of their birth for the first seven to ten days, until they shed their first baby skin and add their first rattle. The litter will begin to disperse as they venture out in search of food. Many newborn rattlesnakes do not survive their first year, either dying of hunger or being eaten by birds and animals. Even if they survive the first summer, they may perish during the first winter, if they can't find a suitable warm crevice in which to hibernate.

If all goes well, youngsters grow rapidly. Each time they come out of hibernation, they shed their skin. With each skin shedding (molting) a new rattle appears. During the rapid growth of the first few years, they may molt three times annually. Thus, the number of rattles is not a true indicator of age. Rattles also wear out or break off, so it is unusual to find an adult snake with more than 8 or 10 rattles.

Lifespan

The average lifespan of a rattlesnake is 20 to 30 years in captivity. In the wild, the lifespan is less due to predation, disease or death by accident.

Predators

The kingsnake is well known for being immune to the venom of many pit vipers, including rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes are part of the kingsnake's diet. Roadrunners, pigs, hawks, eagles and humans are also rattlesnake predators.

Diet

Rattlesnakes are carnivorous. Instead of chewing their food, they swallow it whole. The size of the prey a rattlesnake selects is limited by its own ability to eat it, based upon its own size. Rattlesnakes eat lizards and small rodents such as ground squirrels, small rabbits, rats and mice, striking rather than attempting to hold their prey.

The rattlesnake first bites its prey to immobilize it with a toxic venom. When the hollow fangs of the rattler penetrate the victim's flesh, venom is injected as though through twin hypodermic needles. Most small prey is immediately stunned. The venom stuns and immobilizes the prey, allowing time for the rattler to swallow the victim whole. The venom also begins the digestive process as it breaks down the tissue of the prey.

Rattlesnakes have a highly-efficient digestive system which takes a lot of metabolic energy. After a rattlesnake swallows its prey, it will normally hide out while the meal is digested. Rattlesnakes become sluggish while digesting, a process that can take several days depending on the size of the meal.

Conclusion

Rattlesnakes are fascinating and important creatures that deserve our respect and understanding. By learning about their behavior, habitat, and safety measures, we can coexist with these venomous snakes and appreciate their role in the ecosystem.

 

Common Questions about Rattlesnakes:

What are the symptoms of a rattlesnake bite?
How can I protect my dog and other pets from rattlesnake bites?
How can I keep rattlesnakes out of my yard?


If you need help with a venomous bite or if you have a poisoning emergency, call your Poison Center immediately.   If the victim has collapsed or is not breathing, call 911. Poison Centers across the country now have a new national emergency phone number - 1-800-222-1222

 

Links

What are the symptoms of a rattlesnake bite?
How can I protect my dog and other pets from rattlesnake bites?
Are rattlesnake bites becoming more dangerous?

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