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Rattlesnake Info

By Christina Obrecht, January 24, 2008 1:05 PM PST


“Crotalus horridus”


*Beautiful and misunderstood*

The word alone fills most people with fear and anxiety because they have no experience in dealing with snakes. Yet we should learn to appreciate the rattlesnake as one of the most efficient and specialized predators on Earth. Many rattlesnakes struggle to survive as humans move in on their habitat. And some people feel that the only good rattlesnake is a dead one! Continue to read facts about these wonderful snakes and discover what they are all about; just don’t get too close to them!

Rattlesnakes are a group of venomous snakes, genera Crotalus and Sistrurus. They belong to the class of venomous snakes known commonly as pit vipers. There are more than 30 species of rattlesnake, with numerous subspecies. They are named for the rattle found at the tip of their tails that is used as a warning device when threatened. Most rattlesnakes mate in the spring, and all species give birth to live young, rather than lying eggs. Mothers abandon their young within hours after birth. Can you imagine that?


The earliest fossil was found which can be identified as a rattlesnake was discovered near Driftwood Creek in Hitchcock County, Nebraska, U.S.A. An exact age of the specimen is indeterminate. The fossilized remains usually consist of ribs, which makes an accurate specie identification problematic, as even many species of modern rattlesnakes have nearly identical vertebral characteristics. One extinct species of which fossils were discovered in Allen Cave in Citrus County, was given the name Croeus. Though it had many characters in common with the modern Crotalus adamant us, it was a much larger animal, probably attaining lengths in excess of 12 feet. In general, the fossil record for rattlesnakes is quite limited, and their exact route of evolution from the more primitive true vipers to their current form is not well understood.


Rattlesnakes are prey for king snakes, roadrunners, pigs, hawks, and eagles. They have been harvested as human food, such as Rattlesnake Round-Up in Sweetwater, Texas. When cooked, they taste like chicken, but a little more “gamey”.

*The rattle*

The rattle is composed of a series of nested, hollow beads which are actually modified scales from the tail tip. Each time the snake sheds its skin, a new rattle segment is added. Since they may shed their skins several times a year, depending on food supply and growth rates, and since the rattle can and does break, there is little truth to the claim that one can tell a rattlesnakes age from the number of beads in its rattle. Newborn rattlesnakes do not have functional rattles; it isn’t until after they have shed their skin for the first time that they gain an additional bead, which beats against the first bead, known as the button, to create the rattling sound. Adult snakes may lose their rattles on occasion, but more appear at each molting. If the rattle absorbs enough water in wet weather, it will not make noise.


Rattlesnakes feed on rodents and other small animals, subduing their prey by striking them quickly with a venomous bite as opposed to constricting. The venom stuns or kills typical rattlesnake prey immediately. A rattlesnake will follow prey that does not quickly succumb to the venom and attempts to escape. They are especially known to strike at distances up to two-thirds their body length!



All rattlesnakes have a set of fangs, which are usually used to injected their prey, and even humans with venom. Different rattlesnakes contain different types of venom, however the most common venom is thermostatic venom (this venom stops blood from clotting and destroys tissue and organs. Usually permanent scarring will occur as a result of being bitten.) Sometimes rattlers deliver bites which either contain no venom, or very little, this is due to they may be biting defensively or the rattlesnake may be hurt.

*Safety And Identification*

Different species of rattlesnake vary significantly in size, territory, markings, and of course temperament. If the rattlesnake is not cornered or imminently threatened, it will usually attempt to flee from encounters with humans, but will not always do so. Bites often occur when humans startle the snake or provoke it. Those bitten while provoking rattlesnakes have usually underestimated the range and speed which a coiled snake can strike (literally, faster than the human eye can follow). Be aware that they can actually strike without pulling their body back into the famous “S” coil shape first, and they may strike without any warning if feeling threatened. Heavy boots and long pants reinforced with leather or canvas are recommended when hiking in areas known to harbor rattlers.

The best way to avoid contact with rattlers is to remain observant and avoid potential encounters. Hikers should always watch their steps when negotiating fallen logs or boulders and take extra caution when near rocky outcroppings and ledges where rattlesnakes may be hiding or sunning themselves. Snakes will occasionally sun themselves in the middle of a trail, so always watch your step.

*Rattlesnake Bites*

Rattlesnakes are born with fully functioning fangs capable of injecting venom and can regulate the amount of venom they inject when biting. Generally they deliver a full dose of venom into their prey, but may deliver less venom or none at all when biting defensively. A frightened or injured snake may not exercise such control. Additionally, young snakes have not yet learned to control the amount of venom they deliver. Some studies contest that young snakes may be capable of injecting less venom, and the high toxicity of their bite comes from a variation in their venom which causes it to have a more potent concentration than in their adult counterparts. Any bite from a rattlesnake should be considered fully venomous and those bitten, should seek medical attention immediately!


Most species of rattlesnakes have hemotoxic venom, destroying tissue, degenerating organs and causing coagulopathy (disrupted blood clotting). Some degree of permanent scarring is very likely in the event of a venomous bite, even with prompt, effective treatment, and a severe envenomation, combined with delayed or ineffective treatment, can lead to the loss of a limb and rarely, death. Thus, a rattlesnake bite is always a potentially serious, or even fatal, injury. Untreated rattlesnake bites, especially from bigger species, are sometimes fatal. However, antivenin, when applied in time, reduces the death rate to less than 4%. Around 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year. On average, fewer than 15 snakebite deaths are reported. The venom of the Mojave Rattler contains a powerful neurotoxin component that can paralyze prey. Large Diamondback rattlers, while having considerably less potency by volume than other species such as the Mojave or Midget Faded rattlesnakes, possess a large enough volume of venom to kill two or three humans.

Some rattlesnakes, especially the tropical species, have neurotoxin venom. A bite from these snakes can interfere with the function of the heart, paralyze the lungs, and shut down parts of the nervous system.

While the most important treatment for snakebite is nearly always antivenin, local first aid can help improve the prognosis if medical assistance will not be available for a length of time. Immobilizing the limb in a splint and wrapping the bitten area with elastic bandage can impede the spread of the venom. While damage may be increased in the bitten area, the area is likely to suffer a high degree of damage whether isolated or not. This wrapping is not a tourniquet, and should be wrapped only as tightly as one could wrap a sprain. The goal is to impede the subcutaneous circulation of the venom. Tourniquets are not recommended for any type of snakebite; venom doesn’t largely enter the body through the bloodstream, but through the lymph. While blood is actively pumped, lymph relies on body motions to circulate and is much lower pressure; thus, a bandage that doesn’t obstruct blood flow (an act that could impede healing and promote infection) can still obstruct lymph flow. A more recent technique developed by S. Grenard, best combined with the above, is to apply strong pressure to the bite area with a piece of folded gauze for 3-5 minutes immediately after invenomation to encourage the formation of a fibrin clot. The clot can trap part of the venom, confining much of the damage to an even smaller area. Regardless of the treatment, the victim should limit their activity as much as possible.

*Rattlesnakes in Captivity*

There are fairly obvious risks with private ownership of rattlesnakes. A bite can result in a huge bill for emergency medical care. Some Jurisdictions outlaw the possession of venomous snakes. Where it is legal, some form of license or insurance policy may be required. Why, you may think would somebody want to keep a venomous snake? They are always fascinating to watch, but unless you are a professional with snakes, I wouldn’t suggest having any. In some cases, professionals like to keep them in captivity for tests and studying the anatomy and taxonomy….

Here is a map of the distribution of western rattlers:

Dig these facts:

1. The most poisonous rattler is the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake.

2. The average lifespan of a rattlesnake is an amazing 20 years.

3. The average rattlesnake growths to a length of 1 meter - 2.4 meters.

4. Rattlesnakes usually inhabit areas such as deserts, forests, mountains and dry areas, although some prefer places more humid, such as the Eastern Diamondback.

5. The rattle of a rattlesnake can be heard around 60 feet away!

6. Arizona has more species of rattlesnakes (~11) than any other state in the U.S.

7. Their fangs are like retractable hypodermic needles.

8. They are one of the most highly specialized organisms.