Rattlesnakes are usually identified by their warning rattle — a hiss or buzz — made by the rattles at the tip of their tails. A rattlesnake is born with a button, or rattler, and acquires a new rattle section each time it molts. Rattlesnakes also are distinguished by having rather flattened, triangular heads. The heads of all Crotalus rattlesnakes are about twice as wide as their necks.
Rattlesnakes belong to the pit viper family Crotalidae, so named because all possess visible loreal pits, or lateral heat sensory organs, between eye and nostril on each side of the head. These heat sensory pits are not present in true vipers, which do not occur in the Western Hemisphere. The facial pits enable rattlesnakes to seek out and strike, even in darkness, warm objects such as small animal prey, as well as larger animals that could be a threat. The vertically elliptical eye pupils, or “cat eyes,” are also a characteristic of rattlesnakes. Identifying a dead rattler whose rattles are missing can be done by looking at the snake’s scales on the underside in the short region between the vent and the tip of the tail. If the scales are divided down the center, the snake is harmless. The scales on rattlesnakes are not divided.
Rattlesnakes come in a great variety of colors, depending on the species and stage of molt. Most rattlers are various shades of brown, tan, yellow, gray, black, chalky white, dull red and olive green. Many have diamond, chevron or blotched markings on their backs and sides.
Range and Habitat
Rattlesnakes occur only in North and South America and range from sea level to perhaps 11,000 feet (over 3,000 m) in California and 14,000 feet (4,000 m) in Mexico, although they are not abundant at the higher elevations. They are found throughout the Great Plains region and most of the United States, from deserts to dense forests and from sea level to fairly high mountains. They need good cover so they can retreat from the sun. Rattlers are common in rough terrain and wherever rodents are abundant.
When a rattlesnake strikes its prey or enemy, the paired fangs unfold from the roof of its mouth. Prior to the completion of the forward strike motion, the fangs become fully erect at the outer tip of the upper jaw. The fangs are hollow and work like hypodermic needles to inject a modified saliva, the venom, into the prey. Rattlesnakes can regulate the amount of venom they inject when they strike.
Mature fangs generally are shed several times a season. They may become embedded in the prey and may even be swallowed with the prey. When one mature fang in a pair is lost, it will soon be replaced by another functional mature fang. A series of developing fangs are located directly behind one another in the same sheath at the roof and outer tip of the mouth. If a newly replaced fang is artificially removed, it may require weeks or longer before another replacement will be fully effective. One fang can function, however, while the other in the pair is being replaced.
Rattlesnakes cannot spit venom, but the impact of a strike against an object can squeeze the venom gland, located in the roof of the mouth, and venom may be squirted.
Female rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous. That is, they produce eggs that are retained, grow, and hatch internally. The young of most species of rattlesnakes are 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) when born. They are born with a single rattle or button, fangs, and venom. They can strike within minutes, but being so small, they are not very dangerous. Average broods consist of 5 to 12 young, but sometimes twice as many may be produced.
The sex of a rattlesnake is not easy to determine. Even though the tail of the rattlesnake (the distance between the vent and the rattles) is quite short, it is much longer in males than in females of the same size.
Snakes never close their eyes, since they have no eyelids. They are deaf, but can detect vibrations. They have a good sense of smell and vision, and their forked tongues transport microscopic particles from the environment to sensory cells in pits at the roof of the mouth. A rattlesnake uses these pits to track prey it has struck and to gather information about its environment.
Snakes have a large number of ribs and vertebrae with ball-and-socket joints. Each rib is joined to one of the scales on the snake’s underside. The snake accomplishes its smooth flowing glide by hooking the ground with its scales, which are then given a backward push from the ribs. Rattlesnakes often look much larger when seen live than after they have been killed. This happens because their right lung extends almost the full length of the tubular body, and when the snakes inhale they can appear much fatter and more threatening. The expulsion of the air can produce a hiss.
Rattlesnakes, like other snakes, periodically shed their skin. When the new skin underneath is formed, the snake rubs its snout against a stone, twig, or rough surface until a hole is worn through. After it works its head free, the snake contracts its muscles rhythmically, pushing, pulling and rubbing, until it can crawl out of the old skin, which peels off like an inverted stocking. Each molt produces a new rattle. Some rattles usually break off from older snakes. Even if no rattles have been lost, they do not indicate exact age because several rattles may be produced in one season.
Rattlesnakes usually see humans before humans see them, or they detect soil vibrations made by walking. They coil for protection, but they can strike only from a third to a half of their body length. Rattlers rely on surprise to strike prey. Once a prey has been struck, but not killed, it is unlikely that it will be struck again. Experienced rodents and dogs can evade rattlesnake strikes.
Rattlesnakes may appear quite aggressive if exposed to warm sunshine. Since they have no effective cooling mechanism, they may die from heat stroke if kept in the sun on a hot day much longer than 15 or 20 minutes.
If a rattlesnake has just been killed by cutting off its head, it can still bare its fangs and bite. The heat sensory pits will still be functioning, and the warmth of a hand will activate the striking reflex. The head cannot strike, but it can bite and inflict venom. The reflex no longer exists after a few minutes, or as long as an hour or more if it is cool, as rigor mortis sets in.
Damage and Damage Identification
The greatest danger to humans from rattlesnakes is that small children may be struck while rolling and tumbling in the grass. Only about 1,000 people are bitten and less than a dozen people die from rattlesnake venom each year in the United States. The venom, a toxic enzyme synthesized in the snake’s venom glands, causes tissue damage, as it tends to quickly tenderize its prey. When known to be abundant, rattlesnakes detract from the enjoyment of outdoor activities. The human fear of rattlesnakes is much greater than the hazard, however, and many harmless snakes inadvertently get killed as a result. Death from a rattlesnake bite is rare and the chance of being bitten in the field is extremely small.
Experienced livestock operators and farmers can usually identify rattlesnake bites on people or on livestock without much difficulty, even if they did not witness the strike. A rattlesnake bite results in almost immediate swelling, darkening of tissue to a dark blue-black color, a tingling sensation, and nausea. Bites will also reveal two fang marks in addition to other teeth marks (all snakes have teeth; only pit vipers have fangs too). Rattlesnakes often bite livestock on the nose or head as the animals attempt to investigate them. Sheep, in particular, may crowd together in shaded areas near water during midday. As a consequence, they also frequently are bitten on the legs or lower body when pushed close to snakes. Fang marks and tissue discoloration that follows in the major blood vessels from the bite area are usually apparent on livestock that are bitten.
The best protection for humans when traveling in snake country is common sense in choosing protective foot and leg wear. When climbing, one should beware of putting a hand up over rocks. Rattlesnakes might be waiting there for a rodent, and the warmth in a hand may cause the snake to strike reflexively. Care should be taken at night, when snakes are more active, and the chance of stepping on a snake is greater. Fortunately, rattlesnakes try to avoid people.
The best first aid for a venomous snake bite is to seek immediate medical care and to keep the victim calm, warm, and reassured. Do not drink alcohol or use ice, cold packs, or freon spray to treat the snake bite or cut the wound, as was once recommended.
If a victim of snake bite is several hours from a car and medical aid, apply a light constricting cloth or other band on the bitten limb, 2 to 4 inches(5 to 10 cm) from the bite and between bite and heart. Make sure it is not as tight as a tourniquet. It should be easy to insert a finger under the band. Loosen it if swelling occurs. Apply suction at the wound for at least 3/4 of an hour by mouth (if no mouth sores), or with a snake bite kit, but again, only if medical assistance is several hours away.
The causes of human death from rattlesnake venom are varied, but usually occur from extended hypotension and cardiopulmonary arrest. Usually within a few minutes after being struck the victim will experience pain and swelling at the wound site.
Most species of rattlesnakes are not considered threatened or endangered. Since they are potentially dangerous, there has not been much support for protecting them except in national parks and preserves. However, since there are state and local restrictions, contact local wildlife agencies for more information.
Damage Prevention and Control Methods
Seal all openings (1/4 inch [0.6 cm] and larger) with mortar, 1/8-inch (0.3-cm) hardware cloth, sheet metal, or steel wool. A snake-proof fence can be used to exclude snakes from areas of human activity.
Reduce rodent populations. Keep all vegetation closely mowed; remove bushes, shrubs, rocks, boards, firewood, and debris lying close to the ground, especially around buildings. Eliminate shelter. Alter all sites that provide cool, damp, dark habitat for snakes.
Several snake repellents have been promoted, but none are consistently effective.
None are registered.
None are registered.
Effective in some situations when properly placed. Glue boards are useful in removing rattlesnakes from buildings.
The above information was adapted from PREVENTION AND CONTROL OF WILDLIFE DAMAGE with permission of the editors, Scott E. Hygnstrom, Robert M. Timm, and Gary E. Larson (Cooperative Extension Division, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources University of Nebraska-Lincoln, United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Animal Damage Control, Great Plains Agricultural Council Wildlife Committee).