Ah, the rattlesnake. Just saying the word conjures up images of the American west and the deserts that encompass the territory. I never realized there were so many different species and I was further surprised to find out that rattlesnakes of varying types have been found in every one of the lower 48 States and throughout Mexico. Here’s some general information regarding the much maligned reptile.

First, how do I know I saw one?

For the most part, each species of rattlesnake has certain characteristics that make it easily identifiable. Most of ‘em have a head that’s triangular in shape and their necks are pretty skinny. Should you have the unfortunate (or if you’re an adventuresome sort, fortunate) occurrence of seeing one up close, you’ll notice that its fangs fold up inside its mouth and that its eyes are similar to that of a cat. That is, the pupils are elliptical rather than round. The most distinguishing feature though is how it got its name, the rattle at the end of their tail.

Do they move around a lot?

Generally speaking, rattlesnakes do have a home range but what sets ‘em apart from other animals is that they don’t go to any great lengths to defend it. Mostly their range consists of an area where there the possibility of mating is likely and the food is abundant. They mainly live in holes or in crevices but when the food gets short or the mates disappear, it's time to move on to greener pastures.

I’ve heard they grow a new rattle every year, is this true?

Well, in a sense. As most of us know, snakes molt or shed their skin periodically throughout their lifetime. For rattlesnakes, this usually occurs three or four times a year depending on conditions related to food and climate.

When a rattlesnake is born, it only has one rattle that looks more like a button. It can’t use it to make any noise. Each additional time the snake molts, a new rattle is added. You can get a rough estimate of the age of the snake by counting the number of rattles and dividing by three or four. I say estimate because often times a rattle or two will break off due to normal wear and tear.

What if, God forbid, I get bitten by one?

Break out the cell phone and call 911 and try not to panic. Very few cases of death are attributable to rattlesnake bites unless of course, you are allergic to their venom.

Here in the States, about 7000 reptile bites are reported each year. Of the venomous snakes in America, rattlesnake bites compose about two-thirds of the reported incidents. Of this two-thirds, about one-half are bites in which no venom was injected (dry bites).

I don’t mean to downplay the situation though. Should you get bitten, it's gonna hurt like hell. Try to remain calm and get medical assistance as soon as possible. It doesn’t matter what type of rattlesnake has taken a chunk out of you, the anti-venom for each species is the same. Here’s some tips of what NOT to do if you or somebody you're with has the unpleasant experience of being bitten by a rattlesnake.

Contrary to popular belief, do not apply a tourniquet. Chances are you're going to do more harm by cutting off the blood supply to the affected area than good.

Do not cut into the bitten area. This only causes the bitee more pain.

Even though they think that they might need a drink to calm their nerves, do not give alcohol to the unfortunate recipient of a rattlesnake bite. Alcohol thins the blood and the venom will spread throughout the bloodstream faster.

Last but not least, do not attempt to suck out the venom yourself. We’ve all seen movies or TV shows in which the hero/heroine saves the day by doing this. That’s where it belongs. It just doesn’t work.

How can I avoid ‘em?

Well, the easiest way is to never ever go outside. Since that strategy is pretty impractical for most of us, bear this in mind.

On the whole, rattlesnakes are pretty shy and don’t go out looking for people. If you like to hike, wear boots designed for that purpose and if you're hiking in an area that has a relatively large rattlesnake population, don’t hike alone. If you're hiking with kids, keep em’ close by. The same thing goes for dogs, keep ‘em on a leash. Given their inquisitive nature, they might stumble across a snake and fall victim to its bite. Oh yeah, don’t try and catch ‘em. Believe it or not, this how most incidents of rattlesnake bites occur.

When is the best time to find em?

Since rattlesnakes are obviously reptiles, they can’t regulate their own body heat. This means they are less active in cooler periods and more active in warmer ones. A good rule of thumb is that rattlesnakes tend to remain hidden in a nice cozy warm spot when the temperature falls below 50 degrees F. If they don’t, they can easily freeze to death. On the other extreme, if the temperature makes it way to oh, let's say, over 100 degree F, the rattlesnake can overheat and die. This makes them more temperature driven than time driven.

What do they eat?

The rattlesnake has a strong preference in its diet for rodents. Just about any type found in its home range will do. They mostly feed at night since that’s when the rodents come out and it's actually easier for them to catch. Rattlesnakes have a sort of built in heat radar that helps them detect their prey. Since most mammals are warmer than the air that surrounds them, this ability greatly assists them in the efforts to find a meal.

How do they make baby rattlesnakes?

Pretty much like any other of your garden variety family of vertebrates. For the non-trained eye, it's hard to distinguish the difference between male and female rattlesnakes. The rattlesnake differs from most other of their snake brethren in that they do not lay eggs. The female keeps the eggs inside of her body until they hatch and the little ones come out alive. From there, they’re pretty much on their own to fend for themselves. Rattlesnakes don’t stick around to enjoy the fruits of parenthood.

Rattlesnake trivia or more aptly titled "Rattlesnakes in Early American History"

Actually, the rattlesnake was one of the first emblems to be adopted by the colonies and we can thank good ol’ Benjamin Franklin for that.

It seems that the British had adopted a practice of emptying their prisons and shipping the convicts across the pond to our fair shores. This didn’t sit too well with the colonists and in 1751 Franklin suggested in his newspaper (the Pennsylvania Gazette) that we return the favor by shipping cargos of rattlesnakes back across the pond in order to return the favor. Upon reaching their destination, they were to be set free in such esteemed places as St. James’s Park and other places frequented by the British nobility.

About three years later, Franklin, in the same paper, depicted a rattlesnake cut up into thirteen segments with each segment bearing the name of one of the colonies. Underneath the depiction, the motto “Join or Die” was printed. The intent was to remind the colonies about the danger of remaining separate entities and became so popular that other newspapers throughout the country took up the theme.

By the time 1774 rolled around, the snake had been rejoined as a symbol of unity among the colonies and the motto was replaced with the ever catchy “United Now Alive and Free Firm on this Basis Liberty Shall Stand and Thus Supported Ever Bless Our Land Till Time Becomes Eternity.” Now that’s sayin’ a mouthful.

Many felt that the depiction of a rattlesnake embodied the qualities of what they wanted America to become. Silent as one rattle but united could be heard by the entire world. Left to its own devices, the rattlesnake would not attack but when provoked or stepped on, the results proved to be quite painful.

Then there was what became known as the Gadsden Flag named after its creator/designer Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina. His version depicted a coiled, hissing rattlesnake in the center of the flag backed by a yellow back round emblazoned with the famous line “Don’t tread on me.” This flag accompanied many ships of the newly formed Continental fleet on their forays into the oceans and waterways throughout the War for Independence.

Rat"tle*snake` (?), n. Zool.

Any one of several species of venomous American snakes belonging to the genera Crotalus and Caudisona, or Sistrurus. They have a series of horny interlocking joints at the end of the tail which make a sharp ratting sound when shaken. The common rattlesnake of the Northern United States (Crotalus horridus), and the diamond rattlesnake of the south (C. adamanteus), are the best known. See Illust. of Fang.

<-- also called rattler, and C. adamateus, and C. atrox are also called the diamondback rattler, or diamondback. -->

Ground rattlesnake Zool., a small rattlesnake (Caudisona, or Sistrurus, miliaria) of the Southern United States, having a small rattle. It has nine large scales on its head. -- Rattlesnake fern Bot., a common American fern (Botrychium Virginianum) having a triangular decompound frond and a long-stalked panicle of spore cases rising from the middle of the frond. -- Rattlesnake grass Bot., a handsome American grass (Glyceria Canadensis) with an ample panicle of rather large ovate spikelets, each one composed of imbricated parts and slightly resembling the rattle of the rattlesnake. Sometimes called quaking grass. -- Rattlesnake plantain Bot., See under Plantain. -- Rattlesnake root Bot., a name given to certain American species of the composite genus Prenanthes (P. alba and P. serpentaria), formerly asserted to cure the bite of the rattlesnake. Calling also lion's foot, gall of the earth, and white lettuce. -- Rattlesnake's master Bot. (a) A species of Agave (Agave Virginica) growing in the Southern United States. (b) An umbelliferous plant (Eryngium yuccaefolium) with large bristly-fringed linear leaves. (c) A composite plant, the blazing star (Liatris squarrosa). -- Rattlesnake weed Bot., a plant of the composite genus Hieracium (H. venosum); -- probably so named from its spotted leaves. See also Snakeroot.


© Webster 1913.

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