What do you think of when you hear the word “rattlesnake?” Perhaps a desert landscape, dry and barren, with a coiled-up reptile vibrating its tail at you.
Interestingly, these snakes do well in aquatic landscapes, too. And as for the fact whether rattlesnakes can swim or not – they can.
This guide will help keep you safe if you run into one while you’re out for a swim.
Are Rattlesnakes Good Swimmers?
Whether you fancy yourself a lover of slithering reptiles or fear them intensely, you’ve got to admit that the thought of a venomous snake swimming toward you is unsettling.
Still, the possibility doesn’t only reside in your imagination. It’s true.
In the words of experts at the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program, “rattlesnakes are excellent swimmers.”
Aquatic environments don’t typically come to mind when snakes are on the brain. Still, microhabitats containing water are often quite attractive to these legless critters.
However, they’re normally attracted to the outer edges of small water bodies, even those that are man-made.
This attraction is because they are ectothermic, meaning they rely on the external environment to regulate their body temperature instead of their internal physiological systems.
The dampness in these areas makes it easier for the snakes to cool themselves. Plus, other animals need water, making these prime locations for catching prey off guard.
Since rattlesnakes are adept at swimming, experts recommend against grabbing at things that appear to be wooden sticks while you’re in the water.
If you’re looking for something to grab onto, you must be extra discerning. Taking hold of the wrong thing could earn you a venom-filled bite.
Can Rattlesnakes Bite While Swimming?
Attempting to escape a swimming rattlesnake by going deeper underwater might not be your best bet.
This is because rattlesnakes may still be able to bite you, even if they’re still in the water.
Essentially, if the snake can open its mouth and get a firm hold of you, you can bet it’ll be able to dig in those fangs and dispense its venom into your system.
Other snakes, like the cottonmouth (another venomous species), can even bite underwater. Although it’s not clear if rattlesnakes are capable of this as well, it’s best not to put it to the test.
Still, understand that snakes are not exactly looking for opportunities to bite people. This behavior typically arises out of self-defense.
A snake will only bite if it feels threatened. So, your best bet at avoiding a run-in with a rattlesnake is to respect its space.
Admittedly, it is difficult to spot rattlesnakes. This is why so many people end up being bitten.
These animals are masters of camouflage. People are often unaware that they’re in a rattlesnake’s presence until it’s too late.
Since it might be even more challenging to watch out for venomous reptiles while you’re splashing around in the water, heed the advice above:
Don’t grab anything that appears to be a stick floating in the water.
If you’re not 100% sure that what you’re looking at is a piece of wood, it’s best to give it space. Remove children and animals from the potential strike zone as quickly as you can.
(A rattlesnake’s striking distance can be up to two-thirds the length of its body. So, if you see a 3-ft snake, you’ll want to give at least two feet of space.)
Since a swimming rattlesnake wouldn’t have the ground’s support to launch itself up and toward its target, it may not be able to use its entire striking potential.
Still, it’s best to assume that it can close the distance between you and itself rather quickly when under pressure. This is the best way to ensure your safety.
Additionally, whenever you plan on going swimming in “snake country,” as it’s called, don’t allow children to wear flip-flops.
This footwear won’t offer any protection if the child accidentally steps on a snake when they’re on land.
What to Do if a Rattlesnake Bites You
At certain times of the year, you should be more vigilant about potential interactions with rattlesnakes.
As mentioned above, they like heading toward water bodies to cool down. This means you’re more likely to find them out and about in these places during warmer seasons.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), rattlesnakes inflict the most bites from April to October.
Roughly one-quarter of the bites are “dry.” This means that the snake didn’t inject any venom; however, the victims still needed medical attention.
Hopefully, you’re not bit at all during a rattlesnake interaction. Still, in case you do get bitten, here are the most critical steps to take to prevent the injury from worsening:
- Remain calm. If the rattlesnake injected venom, it was delivered directly into your bloodstream. Excitement and movement will circulate the venom more quickly.
- Clean the wound. If you have access to water and soap, clean the wound using those resources. Be gentle.
- Remove jewelry, watches, or anything near the bite area that may restrict swelling. Neglecting this step may severely worsen your injury.
- Keep the bite area still. Movement can increase the rate of circulation and move the venom through the body faster.
- Hold the bite area below heart level. Keeping the wounded body part below the heart will slow the circulation to the area and prolong the venom’s harmful effects.
- Get to a hospital as soon as possible. You will need to be treated with either antivenin or an over-the-counter snakebite kit.
It’s normal to feel panicked after being bitten by a rattlesnake. However, you must do your best to stay calm.
These bites are rarely fatal (only 1 out of 600 people bitten die, and 33% of all bites—not just April-October—have no venom).
So, rest assured that you’ll be just fine with treatment.
Can You Identify a Venomous Snake by Its Swimming Pattern?
There was a social media post that went viral for a short while, claiming that a snake’s swimming pattern could clue you into whether it was a venomous species or not.
The post claimed that venomous snakes would travel across the surface while non-venomous types dive underwater.
Unfortunately, the post is inaccurate and may have misled many people.
According to the University of Georgia’s Professor of Vertebrate Ecology, John Maerz, it’s quite normal for snakes to dive below the surface.
Maerz wrote to Reuters, “Snakes may swim underwater when fleeing a predator to hunt, and species like cottonmouths do eat fish and frogs just like water snakes.”
“Secrets of Snakes” author, David Steen, expresses a similar sentiment as he recalled two examples of venomous snakes making their way through water bodies.
First, Steen recalled witnessing an eastern diamondback rattlesnake swimming. He described it filling its single lung to boost its floating ability, ensuring its body stayed dry.
In this instance, the assumption is somewhat correct. The snake wanted to remain dry, so it stayed on the water’s surface.
However, note that it didn’t stay on the surface because it was venomous. In fact, that trait might have been entirely unrelated to its desire to avoid getting wet.
For example, take Steen’s second recollection of cottonmouths’ swimming. Snakes of this species are known to submerge themselves entirely, especially when hunting.
Steen suspects that the myth that led to the viral post came from historical observations of pitvipers traveling across water bodies.
He noted that these animals tend to puff up their bodies in aquatic environments like the eastern diamondback inflates its lung to stay afloat.
People may have seen this behavior and assumed it to represent all venomous snakes’ behavior in water.
How to Tell if a Swimming Snake is Venomous
First, understand that it’s not a good idea for you to stay in the water and try to figure out whether a snake can envenomate you or not.
The safest thing to do is exit the water and strike zone as quickly and calmly as possible.
Afterward, if you recall the snake’s appearance, feel free to look up the species. Or, if it’s still within eyesight, you can identify it from a distance.
With that said, you might be able to pick up on a few context clues and confirm whether you see a rattlesnake swimming toward you:
- Pit vipers (the name of the snake species group containing rattlesnakes) generally hold themselves higher above the water than other species.
- If you hear a vibrating or rattling noise, this indicates that the species is a rattlesnake and is venomous. This noise means you are too close and should back away.
These are the only somewhat reliable signs that can give you an idea of the type of snake you’ve happened to swim upon.
Rattlesnakes are quite an intimidating snake species, both on land and in water, considering that they’re talented swimmers.
Since they’re venomous, it’s best to respect their space, even if you’re not quite sure if it’s a rattlesnake at first glance.
Be sure to know what to expect in the area you’re visiting before hopping in for a swim.
When you’re ready, come back to this guide for a refresher on responding to a possible snake bite correctly.