Published on February 18, 2013 by Amy
Throughout the world there are many snakes whose venomous bite can be fatal to humans. However, in the United States there are only four — the Coral Snake, the Copperhead, the Cottonmouth Water Moccasin and the Rattlesnake. 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. While most of the rattlers are concentrated in the southwestern United States, they extend north, east and south in diminishing numbers and varieties, so that every contiguous state has one or more varieties.
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Some kinds of snakes lay eggs. In others, including rattlesnakes, eggs are retained in the mother’s body until hatched, and the young are born alive. Sometimes the female rattler is killed with the young still in her body, a phenomenon giving rise to the folk tale that she swallows her babies to protect them from danger.
Mating usually occurs in the spring. The young are born between August and October. Rattler babies have venom and 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 7 to 10 days, until they shed their first baby skin and add their first rattle. The litter then begins to disperse and begin the search for food. Many newborn do not survive the 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, and 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.
Rattlesnakes eat lizards and small rodents such as ground squirrels, small rabbits, rats and mice, striking rather than attempting to hold their prey. 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. If a larger animal runs some distance before it dies, it is followed by the snake and swallowed whole.
The rattlesnake is a member group of snakes called pit vipers. A pit between the eyes is used to sense heat sources. The tongue is used to sample the air. When hunting or disturbed, it coils and prepares to lunge at its prey. Its mouth contains two razor-sharp hollow fangs that pump poison venom. The snake does not inject venom with each strike and when it does it may either inject a little or a fair amount. If no venom is used, a person should consider themselves lucky. The venom is quick acting and treatment for snakebite at a hospital is often necessary. It causes a breakdown and death of affected tissue. This is not a snake to play around with.
Many people spend a lifetime hunting, fishing or otherwise enjoying the outdoors and never see a rattlesnake. Very few people are actually bitten by rattlesnakes, yet because the bite is extremely painful and can be fatal, you should always keep alert and watch where you step or put your hands when you are in the field. Be careful after dark as well, for on warm nights rattlesnakes are out and about searching for food.
Most rattlesnakes, when disturbed, normally try to withdraw But if they think they are cornered, the explosive sizzling buzz of their rattles is an unmistakable warning to retreat and is a sound that will long be remembered.