Persecution of rattlesnakes stems from misunderstandings about their behavior and significance in a balanced ecosystem. As we present our list of rattlesnake facts, we aim to clarify these misconceptions and offer accurate information about these cold-blooded reptiles.
From their rattling sounds to their retractable fangs, we have compiled facts to expand your knowledge about them. We have also included reminders on what to look out for when encountering them in the wild. So hold on to your seats and slither into our rattlesnake facts.
Across the desert sand dunes of North America, we can find Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes. They are the continent's most venomous snakes. And they are also the longest, with an average length of 4 to 5 feet. Meanwhile, the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is second only in size.
Interestingly, their rattle accurately reflects their age since it sheds multiple times yearly. Moreover, they can regrow their fangs several times a year.
Various rattlesnake species inhabit regions across North and South America. Examples include the Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake, Tancitaran Dusky Rattlesnake, and Western Rattlesnake. Other popular species are the Mojave Rattlesnake and Santa Catalina Rattlesnake. These creatures span from the US to Canada and down to South America.
Related read: Different Types of Snakes.
Rattlesnakes produce a spine-tingling rattle sound to warn potential predators of their presence. It is a peculiar noise from the rattlesnake's tail, where a series of hollow, interlocked segments vibrate. These segments comprise keratin, the same material in our hair and nails.
In the wild, it is unusual for an animal to use sound to protect itself. Moreover, the rattlesnake can alter its rattle depending on the threat level; as the threat increases, its rattles grow stronger. Likewise, if the threat remains, the snake can rattle for quite some time. However, the rattle does not indicate an attack; it merely signals other animals to stay away.
Like other snakes, rattlesnakes also undergo shedding. At first, the rattlesnake has a single segment, or "button." Then, once the snake sheds for the first time, it gains a new rattle segment.
Throughout its life, the rattlesnake sheds, adding a rattle segment each time. These rattle segments are also fragile and often break off with time. Each rattle section tells a story of survival and resilience.
Like pit vipers, rattlesnakes can sense heat sources moving across the landscape thanks to their built-in thermal receptors. These tiny complex pits sit between the snake's eyes and nostrils, working similarly to infrared cameras. Incredibly, rattlesnakes can detect heat differences as little as 0.003 degrees Celsius.
These nocturnal snakes need their heat-sensing ability to hunt for food in complete darkness. For example, when hunting snakes or rabbits, the rattlesnake relies on their heat signatures to locate them. As the snake gets closer, their heat signatures become clearer. Depending on the thermal image, the snake strikes with deadly accuracy, even in pitch-black places.
How does it work? Like thermal goggles, the pit organ transmits heat data to the brain and transforms it into a thermal image.
Rattlesnakes can retract their fangs to protect themselves from unnecessary damage. Moreover, the snake has complete control over its fangs since they are anchored to movable bones; it can bite its prey and retract its fangs seamlessly.
When not in use, the fangs rest against the roof of the mouth, an ideal location to avoid accidental breakage.
Curiously, rattlesnakes can still bite targets and inject venom even after death. Since rattlesnakes have a prolonged metabolism, some bodily functions can still work up to an hour after they die.
Dead rattlesnakes have bitten humans after their death several times; one case even involves a snake's severed head biting a man. Likewise, pets might get bitten by a 'dead' rattlesnake, which remains as venomous as it was in life.
So, exercise caution when handling a dead rattlesnake. First, use appropriate tools to kill, decapitate, and bury the snake without making direct contact. The best action is to leave these snakes alone or call trained experts to handle them when you encounter one.
Rattlesnake venom contains a variety of proteins and enzymes that can kill adult humans. It can damage tissue, cause extreme pain, and sometimes trigger organ failure.
Interestingly, rattlesnakes prefer conserving their venom for eating rather than taking down threats. After all, why waste valuable venom on a creature too large to consume? They can regulate the amount of venom they release upon biting, a phenomenon known as "venom metering." As a result, not every rattlesnake bite triggers excruciating pain1.
Around one in five rattlesnake bites to humans are "dry bites," which means they don't inject a drop of venom. These animals only bite if they feel endangered or trapped. They would instead slither away from a threat than engage it if possible.
It's also worth noting that a neonate, or baby rattlesnake, possesses the same venom potency as its adult counterparts.
We should not fear these snakes for their ability. Let the succeeding rattlesnake facts change your perspective.
Interestingly, less than 1% of all snake bites result in fatality from rattlesnakes2. Thanks to the availability of antivenom, which contributes to the low fatality rate. Moreover, rattlesnakes may deliver a "dry bite," without venom, commonly used to ward off humans. Most rattlesnakes bite people who accidentally step too close or attempt to handle these creatures.
However, you can avoid these encounters by knowing their habitats, recognizing warning signs, and learning what to do when facing one. While rattlesnake bites demand immediate medical attention, it is not necessarily fatal.
Rattlesnake roundups originated in the heartland of America. People started these events as pest control in the 20th century, but now they attract crowds from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania.
In these events, thousands gather to watch snake handlers capture, display, and frequently kill thousands of rattlesnakes. Snake handlers also showcase their snake-wrangling skills and extract venom from them.
However, conservationists believe rattlesnake roundups threaten rattlesnake populations. As predators, rattlesnakes contribute to controlling small mammal populations. Removing too many of them from the ecosystem might disrupt the balance.
Similarly, conservationists have raised concerns about the techniques used to capture these snakes, such as pouring gasoline into burrows. They believe these methods are heavy-handed and detrimental to the species at worst. Moreover, some believe the rattlesnake deserves respect for its role in the ecosystem and not merely for its venom.
Today, the relentless march of human civilization has threatened rattlesnake survival. Urban expansion, agricultural development, and road construction have destroyed their habitats, forcing them to move to isolated patches of land.
Fortunately, conservation efforts have started to counter this habitat loss. Some of these initiatives protect and mark off chunks of land as off-limits to human encroachment. Others undertake large-scale habitat restoration projects to heal the scars left on the environment.
However, these habitats are complex tapestries of life; each thread plays a crucial role in the vibrant health of the ecosystem. So, the US government implemented legal protections for threatened snake species, such as the Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the Santa Catalina Island rattlesnake.
Finally, changing people's perceptions and challenging misconceptions about these often misunderstood creatures are vital factors in protecting rattlesnake populations.
If you ever find one of these slithering creatures, use these rattlesnake facts to handle the situation better. Remember to share them with your friends, too, to spread awareness.
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with R.
, W. K., Herbert, S. S., Rehling, G. C., & Gennaro, J. F. (2002). Factors that influence venom expenditure in viperids and other snake species during predatory and defensive contexts. Biology of the Vipers, 207-233.
Patel, V. (2023, January 22). Rattle snake toxicity. StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf.