The two main facts that most of us know about rattlesnakes are that they are poisonous, and they rattle before they bite—if you don’t run away first.
But the truth is that there are many more fascinating facts about these intriguing but intimidating reptiles.
Rattlesnakes are almost everywhere in the USA
Rattlesnakes range from Canada south to Argentina.
They are especially common in the Southwest United States, especially in Arizona and Texas, but they are found in every state of the continental United States, plus southern Canada, Mexico, Central America, and South America.
Rattlesnakes thrive in the desert, but they can also live in forests, scrub brush, grasslands, and swamps.
The species of rattlesnakes most common in swamps can swim.
Alaskan winters are too cold for rattlesnakes. There are no native rattlesnakes in Hawaii.
A mother rattlesnake gives live birth to her babies
Rattlesnakes hatch from eggs, but they hatch while they are still inside their mother.
The rattlesnake’s method of reproduction is “ovoviviparous.”
A female rattlesnake carries up to 25 eggs inside her body for about 90 days.
Of the 25 fertilized eggs, only four to 10 are born alive, and the rattlesnake won’t give birth to another brood for two to three years.
Newborn rattlesnakes are potentially deadly, like adults
Rattlesnakes are about 10 inches (25 cm) long when they are born.
They have a small button on the end of their tails that will generate rattles as they grow, but baby rattlesnakes don’t give a warning signal that they are about to bite.
If you find baby rattlesnakes, don’t handle them without snake hooks, snake tongs, buckets with secure lids, and the knowledge of how to use them.
Rattlesnakes are cold-blooded but cold-tolerant
Because rattlesnakes are cold-blooded, they ball up together in dens with as many as 100 of snakes to survive the winter.
Rattlesnakes are most active at temperatures between 80 and 95 °F (26 and 35 °C), but can stand temperatures below freezing.
Rattlesnakes can briefly leave their dens in temperatures as low as 4 °F (−16 °C).
They can survive for several days in temperatures slightly above freezing, at 37 °F (3 °C).
A rattlesnake relies more on camouflage than on biting
A rattlesnake’s first line of defense against its predators is camouflage.
The colors of its scales help it blend in with the surrounding scenery when it is viewed from above.
It will try to avoid being noticed by land animals that might attack it by staying very still.
There are many animals that bite rattlesnakes
We usually think of rattlesnakes biting us, but the truth is, there are many animals that prey on rattlesnakes.
Just a few of the animals that prey on rattlesnakes are eagles, owls, hawks, foxes, coyotes, wildcats, and even turkeys.
There are also other snakes that eat rattlesnakes.
A rattlesnake is still venomous when its head has been cut off
A rattlesnake can still deliver a fatal dose of venom even if it has been decapitated.
Getting pricked by the fangs of a dead rattlesnake when handling its head can deliver the toxin.
Hunters who eat what they kill are cautioned to move the severed head of the snake as far away as possible before skinning the body and preparing the meat.
It is important to keep rattlesnake heads away from pets and children.
Rattlesnake meat isn’t very tasty
There are also people who kill, cook, and eat rattlesnakes.
The practice of eating rattlesnake is common enough in the American Southwest that rattlesnake meat is often referred to as “desert whitefish.”
The only resemblance to ocean whitefish, however, is the color of the meat.
Rattlesnake meat is full of sinews. This makes it very chewy.
There are many small bones. It is hard to eat, and there is very little flavor.
Can carry Salmonella
Even if hunters and cooks avoid getting bitten by a dead snake, which occasionally happens, undercooked rattlesnake meat can cause food poisoning.
To avoid contamination with bacteria from the dead snake, cooks must always follow these rules:
- Wear latex gloves when handling raw rattlesnake meat.
- Make sure any cutting boards are thoroughly decontaminated after they are used in preparing rattlesnake meat.
- Cook rattlesnake meat to an internal temperature of 165° F (about 75° C). Measure temperature with a meat thermometer to make sure it is completely cooked. Different parts of the rattlesnake may require different cooking times.
Prefers flight to bite
When a rattlesnake becomes aware of the danger, it will first try to quietly slither away.
It will find the nearest crevice or brush pile available for hiding until a potential predator (or human) has passed.
If there isn’t an avenue of escape, the rattlesnake will coil its tail and raise its head in an attempt to look larger.
Then it will hiss and rattle to warm the approaching animal or person that it is ready to bite.
Most people and animals who hear a rattlesnake rattle will turn around and leave the rattlesnake alone. However, if an animal or a hiker comes too close, it will bite.
Most people who are bitten by rattlesnakes have stepped on them or come too close.
Injects venom through hollow teeth
Rattlesnakes kill the mice, rats, rabbits, small birds, and squirrels on which they feed with their venom, rather than by squeezing them to death.
Rattlesnakes may also eat insects, but do not poison them first.
A rattlesnake injects venom into its victims through its syringe-like fangs.
The fangs are connected by ducts to venom glands at the outer edge of the jaw, near the back of the head.
When a rattlesnake lunges forward to bite, muscles on the sides of the venom glands squeeze venom through the ducts and into the fangs.
When a rattlesnake isn’t biting, the fangs fold up against the roof of its mouth.
Are venomous at birth and only get more poisonous with age
A rattlesnake has fangs and venom even before it hatches. It is capable of killing small animals from the first hour it is born.
Older rattlesnakes produce more venom than younger rattlesnakes, and their venom is more toxic.
Rattlesnakes don’t usually bite deep enough to release venom directly into the bloodstream in humans, but when they do, usually when they bite children, the effects are faster and more serious.
Rattlesnakes shed their fangs
Rattlesnakes shed their fangs every six to 10 weeks.
There are at least three pairs of replacement fangs behind the active fangs ready to replace them as needed.
Rattlesnake venom is uniquely toxic
Rattlesnake venom contains a mixture of neurotoxins that paralyze the rattlesnake’s prey, along with digestive enzymes that begin to break down the victim’s flesh.
It travels quickly through the bloodstream throughout the body to begin breaking down tissues.
It also interferes with clotting factors so that there is internal bleeding throughout the prey’s body, ensuring the toxin is completely distributed to every tissue.
The rattlesnakes of Arizona and California are the deadliest of all
The venom of the tiger rattlesnake, found in south-central Arizona and the state of Sonora in Mexico, is the most dangerous venom found in any snake in North and South America.
The Mojave rattlesnake also has a potent, paralyzing toxin in its venom not found in other rattlesnakes.
Some encounters with rattlesnakes result in “dry bites”
About 10 up to 50% of rattlesnake bites are “dry,” without any symptoms caused by the release of venom.
It’s never a good idea to count on a bite being dry, however, so anytime you or someone with you is bitten by a rattlesnake, an immediate trip to the emergency room is essential.
Collecting rattlesnake venom is a lucrative profession
Collecting rattlesnake venom for sale to the companies that make antivenom pays very well.
A single gram (about 1/30 of an ounce) of rattlesnake venom sells for $225 to $250.
Unfortunately, many people who do this job lose fingers or are killed by the snakes.
Over 99% of people who are bitten by rattlesnakes survive
Most of the 4,500 to 5,000 people a year in the United States who are bitten by rattlesnakes survive.
The death rate from rattlesnake bites is only 1 in 736.
The US Poison Control Center says that most of the very few people who die from rattlesnake bites are young, male, and under the influence of alcohol at the time of the attack.
A lot of the traditional advice about first aid for rattlesnake bites is wrong
There is a great deal of conventional wisdom about first aid for rattlesnake bite that is actually harmful.
It’s never a good idea to use a tourniquet or to apply ice to rattlesnake bite. This can cause constriction of blood vessels that sends the toxin further into the bloodstream.
You should never cut the wound and try to suck out the venom.
You won’t be able to remove the venom this way, but you could get venom into the bloodstream in your head through a cut in our mouth.
Drinking a cup of coffee will accelerate the spread of the venom. Drinking alcohol will interfere with the calm, decisive action needed to get emergency treatment.
And it’s never a good idea to try to catch the snake so it can be identified. This gives it more opportunities to bite.
Instead, follow these first aid rules suggested by the Mayo Clinic in case of rattlesnake bite:
- Get out of striking range of the snake.
- Stay calm and move as little as possible to slow the circulation of the venom.
- Remove any tight-fitting clothing or jewelry around the wound.
- Position yourself so the wound is below the level of your heart. For instance, if you are bitten in the hand, lie down and dangle the bitten hand over the side of the sofa while you are waiting for emergency help to arrive.
- Wash the wound with soap and water and cover with dry gauze, loosely. This is to prevent infection from the bite after you get antivenom. Don’t apply a Band-Aid.
Over 80% of pets that are bitten by rattlesnakes survive if they get prompt treatment
Most dogs and cats that are bitten by rattlesnakes will survive if you take them to a vet for emergency treatment right away, preferably in the first hour.
The smaller the animal, the more urgent it is to seek treatment.
Pets are most often bitten when they are trying to catch the snake. Rattlesnakes will most frequently strike the face, neck, and legs.
The challenge of recognizing rattlesnake bites in pets is that there often is very little pain or swelling. Pet owners need to be on the lookout for symptoms like these:
- Trembling, twitching, or shaking.
- Weakness or unsteadiness in the hind legs.
- Drooling, or frothing at the mouth.
- Dilated pupils.
- Trouble getting up.
- Diarrhea, vomiting, or bloody urine.
- Sudden weakness or collapse, followed by your pet getting up normally, at least for a while. This is the hallmark sign of snakebite in pets. It may be followed by paralysis and complete collapse.
Keep the wound below the heart, and try to keep your pet as calm as possible while you get to an animal hospital quickly.
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