Rattlesnake Musings.

A week or so ago I saw my first rattlesnake and would have been overjoyed, except for the fact that it was dying. It’d either been run over by a car, or someone had broken its neck. The rattle was mostly gone (and many people kill rattlesnakes for the rattle, but they also may lose them in the wild), but I can’t know for sure. I got it off the road at least, but was pretty bummed to have to watch my first rattler struggle with death.

That got me thinking.

Rattlesnakes really get a bad rep. My guess is that their general appearance (angry-looking eyes with vertical pupils, their excellent camo, and rough scales) combined with their venomous bite contributes to this idea that rattlers are devilish creatures lying in wait for an unsuspecting victim. According to the Bible’s creation myth, Satan (the source of all evil) takes his first form as that of a serpent, so that really doesn’t help. They also enjoy hiding in crevices, which skeeves out lots of people right off the bat.

I think most people have a confused perspective on snakes in general. Whenever I’ve worked with snakes, I’ve noticed that lots of people (mostly women) have almost a sense of pride about their fear of the creatures. They stick their noses up and make it a point to say, “Well, I will not be going in that room,” looking you dead in the eye after you’ve told them where the snakes reside. They shoo their children into the room and stand outside the door, pulling faces of pure disgust. Some women need to know if there are any photographs of snakes around so that they can avoid those as well. (I’ve mentioned some of this in my post on phobias, so forgive me if this is a repeat of information.)

Many people consider snakes to be slimy (they’re actually dry), cold (only if they haven’t been warming themselves), and aggressive (few species actually are). They think that snake bites will hurt (they don’t, really) or that constrictors will automatically want to squeeze their throats (only if your throat is warm). People also have a disproportionate sense of danger; even tiny snakes, which often have mouths too tiny to bite humans, seem to say “It doesn’t matter how small I am, I’m still secretly deadly and you are the one I want!” I think that’s the biggest problem people have with snakes: they just assume that snakes are unpredictable and want to attack. The total opposite is true. Watching a snake, like watching a human, will give you clues about its attitude, and snakes would like nothing more than to avoid all contact with humans.

To start with, humans are physically enormous next to nearly every single species of snake, with the exclusion of the anaconda and reticulated python. Even these snakes don’t bother with adult humans; they’re probably dangerous to children, but I couldn’t find any news stories about it. (Chances are, in small rural villages, anaconda or python attacks on children go unreported to the Western world but do occur.) Snakes know they can’t eat humans, so they don’t want to bother with them -they also view us as a threat because we’re huge, which means we may want to eat them. All snakes want to do – like any other animal – is eat, sleep, and procreate. They have no secret agenda.

So, compound a general sense of discomfort of snakes with a deadly venom, and you get a group of species that get killed just for existing. Let’s take a look at these critters and why they’re not as bad as many think.

DesertUSA says there are around 16 rattlesnake species, and three other species of venomous snakes that don’t fall into the rattlesnake category: the coral snake, the copperhead, and the cottonmouth. (The copperhead and cottonmouth are pit vipers, however, just like rattlesnakes, meaning that they possess special heat-sensing organs in their heads. Other snakes use a sensitive sense of smell to hunt.) Most rattlers live on the western side of the US, but a few hang out in Eastern forests. They are typically shorter and stouter than non-venomous snakes, with triangular heads, rougher scales, and phenomenal camouflage. Like other snakes, they rely on outside heat sources for energy. They feed on rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and sometimes birds, swallowing their prey whole after immobilizing it with venom. The venom is delivered via two syringe-like fangs from glands on either side of the head. Most vipers grow to around three feet, depending on the species (I’m inclined to believe that you can ignore any reports of vipers reaching “giant” sizes.) Their rattles are actually modified scales, and the rattle grows each time the snake sheds.

So what’s the real danger? In fact, very little. The University of Florida reports that you’re more likely to die from a lightning strike than a snakebite. Apparently, about 7500 reported venomous snakebites occur in the US every year, and of those, only 6-12 may actually be fatal. There are all kinds of factors to consider: age and health of the bitten, age of the snake, how far from medical care the bitten person is, etc. (Juvenile rattlers are more dangerous as they’re more pugnacious and less likely to control the amount of venom they inject.) A quarter to a third of bites are actually “dry,” meaning that no venom is delivered. In fact, rattlesnakes are reported to be “shy” creatures by many a herpetologist, and disinclined to bite unless stepped on or directly threatened (which aforementioned herpetologists know by experience!).

{8/31/10: I’m adding this section into the post from the comments by Bryan at fieldherper.com, an absolutely phenomenal site for information on reptiles and some of the best photos I’ve seen. He points out how most snakebites occur, and this information is vital – mostly because most bites occur from human stupidity, *not* from a snake’s natural tendencies. 

Over 80% (closer to 90%, depending on the year) of bites are in men. The majority of those were trying to catch or kill the snake, or otherwise play with the thing. A good portion of these involve alcohol. Of the other 15% or so, most are people who keep snakes or work with them professionally, and know the risks. The small remainder are the ‘legitimate’ bites, of which you’ve covered the actual likelyhood of death. Somehow, each bite still makes headlines as ‘RATTLESNAKE ATTACK!”, forgetting to mention the ‘victim’ was poking at the thing with a stick.}

It would appear, then, that the reputation for unbridled danger attributed to the rattlesnake is a relatively undue. Sure, they have the capacity for deadliness, but so does canned food if not canned properly. We eat a lot more canned food than we encounter rattlesnakes. It turns out, of course, that rattlers are important not only in their own ecosystems, but in for ours too. Snakes in general are one of the most important predators for keeping rodent populations under control. When we wipe out snakes of any kind, we’re openly inviting the destruction of important food crops. Mice, rats, and other rodents can produce massive numbers of offspring – which can eat food meant for humans and spread disease. So, really, snakes are our friends.

The “importance” of an animal is trivial, however; all creatures exist on this earth in balance, and “importance” is a concern of the egocentric mind. No rattlesnake – or any other animal – can do the horrible kinds of things that humans do. Venom is of little consequence compared to war, genocide, and discrimination. And yet they suffer: annual rattlesnake roundups are festivals of cruelty and display how grotesquely humans can really behave.

I don’t know how you feel about snakes, but I hope if you think poorly of them, you can learn to appreciate them. I hope that you’ve learned something in this article that will change your mind not just about snakes, but about all animals with a bad rep. They’re there for a reason, and usually it just takes a little perspective to see why they’re awesome. Sometimes I think the same is true for humans. :)



RATTLESNAKE QUIZ!! Test your knowledge! (I love quizzes.) The rest of the site, here at the American International Rattlesnake Museum, is equally as awesome.

ScienceDaily reports on the world’s tiniest snake species.

David Steen of Auburn U keeps a cool blog with lots of great herp info and photos.

MedlinePlus page on snakebites.

Posted on August 27, 2010, in Fauna and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Too bad about your first rattler being in such rough shape, but thanks for a great post to counteract all the misunderstanding and negativity surrounding snakes!

  2. Thank you for posting this interesting & informative post! I have passed it a long on Twitter & Facebook :-)

    • Michelle, I am so honored that you enjoyed the post enough to Tweet and Facebook it! Thank you SO much! :) I’m always in the corner of animals with bad reps, so the more the word gets out, the better! How did you find this post? (I’m always curious where things are showing up!)

  3. I really like this article, it gets across many of the points I try to get across every day to people who’ve found pride in killing wildlife. You hit the nail on the head with the reaction of many women to snakes, even moreso to those who choose to shovel their heads off or intentionally run them over. They’re facebook photo opportunities to say “look how interesting I am” and enjoy some comments from others who wallow in ignorance and fear.

    Over 80% (closer to 90%, depending on the year) of bites are in men. The majority of those were trying to catch or kill the snake, or otherwise play with the thing. A good portion of these involve alcohol. Of the other 15% or so, most are people who keep snakes or work with them professionally, and know the risks. The small remainder are the ‘legitimate’ bites, of which you’ve covered the actual likelyhood of death. Somehow, each bite still makes headlines as ‘RATTLESNAKE ATTACK!”, forgetting to mention the ‘victim’ was poking at the thing with a stick.

    Anyway, thanks again for the good writeup, you’ve gained a reader.

    • Bryan, thank you so much – I really appreciate your comments and I’m glad that a herp expert such as yourself found the article to be spot on. The attitude that people (women) have about their snake fear is fascinating – and at the same time disheartening – to me. I’ve read the idea that people with little experience with the feared object tend to have the greatest fears, but it’s heartbreaking that they won’t even try to get past it. These are creatures worth their weight in gold to people like us, and the random killings associated with fear or ignorance breaks my heart.

      Your comments are spot on and I’m going to add them into the post as an addendum because I neglected to mention how most bites actually happen. Thanks again Bryan, I feel really special to have such a great response from a herper like yourself! Your blog is really impressive – keep up the great work and I look forward to your comments.

  4. Fantastic post for a non-snake expert!!! It’s one of the best I’ve read!

    I agree that it all has to do with education! I do a lot of snake demonstrations with school kids, and find it interesting that the younger kids, that have not yet been taught to fear snakes, are significantly more willing to ouch or hold a snake, while the older the class, the more visually afraid they are.

    I’m all about conservation and hope to make a difference where I can. I commend you for trying to do the same!


  5. TRN, I finished another rattlesnake related article today that I thought you might enjoy. Check it out if you get a second.


    Take care!


  1. Pingback: Coyote: Leader of the Bad Rap Crew « The Roaming Naturalist

  2. Pingback: Scientia Pro Publica: Answers to 28 popular and not-so-popular questions

%d bloggers like this: