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The Rattlesnake

Updated on October 22, 2011

Rattlesnake is one of four venomous snakes. Rattlesnake belongs to the pit viper family. There are 16 rattlesnake varieties and numerous colors, with distinct shape patterns. Rattlesnake is approximately four feet long and its body is covered with small scales. It has no eye lids and no legs. All rattlers are positively identified by the jointed rattles on the end of their tail. Rattlesnakes are dangerous and when disturbed, coils up and rattles a warning. If it is cornered, it will definitely strike. Rattlesnake hibernates in winter in deep dark crevices and ledges. When temperatures begins to warm in early spring, snake crawls out to hunt for rodents, lizards, squirrels and small rabbits.

Rattlesnakes are found from southern Canada to northern Argentina and Uruguay. In the United States, they occur in all states except Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Delaware. Mexico, in the middle of the rattlesnake's range, is home to 27 of the 30 rattlesnake species. The United States has 15 species of rattlers; a single species lives in Central America; and 3 species occur in South America.

As cold-blooded animals whose body temperature depends on their surrounding environment, rattlesnakes prefer mainly hot, dry locations, such as grassy plains, sand hills, deserts, and brushy or rocky hillsides. They are found from sea level to about 4,420 m (14,500 ft). Rattlesnakes are especially common in areas with abundant rodents, their favorite form of prey.

Description

Like all snakes, rattlers are cold-blooded; they are the same temperature as the environment. They continue to grow all their lives, getting bigger and bigger each year. Their scaly skin glistens but is dry is to the touch. The scales vary from yellow to brown to black, and there are dark V- or diamond-shaped markings along the back. The snake smells with its tongue and has two long, hollow fangs that inject a relatively weak venom (poison) into prey. Females give birth to about 10 live young, born without a rattle.

Reproduction

Rattlesnakes give birth to live young that have hatched inside of the mother's body. Females typically have broods of about 4 to 12 young, although females of some large species may give birth to more than 20 young at a time. The young are usually born between August and October. The mother may remain near her young for several days after they are born, but like other snakes, rattlesnakes must feed and care for themselves from birth. Young rattlesnakes are able to attack prey within minutes after being born. Among most species, rattlesnakes measure 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 in) at birth and reach maturity after about three years.

Most rattlesnakes die within their first year of life, often because they are unable to catch enough food or because they are eaten by hawks, skunks, or other snakes. Those that survive to adulthood may live for as long as 25 years.

Hunting and Diet

Rattlesnakes are carnivores (meat-eaters). They mostly hunt at night (they are nocturnal) and can sense the heat of their potential prey. Rattlers kill prey with venom, which also contains digestive enzymes that begin to dissolve the meat even before the snake eats it. Like all snakes, they swallow prey whole, head first. The top and bottom jaws are attached to each other with stretchy ligaments, which let the snake swallow animals that are wider than the snake itself. Rattlesnakes eat rodents, lizards, and other small animals.

Diamond Back Rattlesnake

Diamondbacks are found throughout the state of Florida, including several offshore islands and keys. Outside of Florida, they range north along the coastal plain to southeastern North Carolina and west to southern Mississippi and eastern Louisiana.

Habitat

Diamondbacks are often found in pine flatwoods, longleaf pine and turkey oak, sand pine scrub areas, and coastal barrier islands. These habitats contain palmetto thickets and gopher tortoise burrows in which the diamondback may seek refuge. Humans have invaded many of pine flatwoods and scrub areas which now contain farms, homes . As a result, the displaced diamondbacks may be turn up in backyards, golf courses, and even parking lots.

Behaviour

This is a large, impressive, and potentially dangerous snake. It can strike up to 2/3 its body length; a 6-foot (183 cm) specimen may strike 4 feet (122 cm). These factors, as well as others, make this a snake that should be left alone and not molested.

Some people wrongly believe the diamondback must rattle before striking. This is not true. It can lie silent and motionless, and then strike without the usual nervous buzz from its rattle. In fact, diamondbacks that rattle are more apt to be heard, seen and killed, and diamondbacks that remain silent are more apt to go undiscovered and pass on their genes to the next generation. In this way, we inadvertently are selecting for rattlers that do not rattle.

This snake is extremely beneficial to man because it preys on rats, mice, rabbits, and other warm-blooded prey, many of which are considered pests. Nevertheless, the general public in Florida feels so threatened by the diamondback rattlesnake that most are killed on sight. This indiscriminate killing, combined with the widespread loss of rattlesnake habitat to agricultural development and urban sprawl and commercial hunting for rattlesnake skins, has caused a decline in most diamondback rattlesnake populations. Though not endangered, the species clearly is in trouble.

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    • Michelleishappy profile image

      Michelleishappy 

      6 years ago from Missouri

      I am trying to identify a couple of baby snakes we found at our front door (and subsequently sent to snake heaven). We live in southern Missouri, which is mountainous and kind of dry, lots of rocks...therefore rattlesnakes are something we have encountered before. I took a picture of the snake after it became a not-so-dearly departed, and I didn't see any rattle and I am wondering if a rattle snake isn't born with the rattle, but if it is something that kind of grows...or is something that is small; or maybe we just didn't see it. These snakes were about a foot in length and had a diamond pattern and I thought I saw a forked tongue while they were alive, but I didn't pay that much attention, and didn't want to get too close to them. Plus, trying to compare their markings to an adult snake is difficult. They were brown. Definitely not copperheads, though, or water snakes. Looked at those pics already. Would appreciate advice.

    • profile image

      HAIRY 

      6 years ago

      which poisonous snake does not hibernates ,thanks

    • profile image

      Harvey L.Snyder 

      7 years ago

      i grew up in the blue ridge mts. of Penna. I trapped and hunted the woods of southwest PA. and never encounterred a rattler. I saw many copperheads, an occassional water snake blacksnakes and many varieties of nonpoisonous snakes but never in 30 years a rattler. I was familiar with the mountans and the lowlands surely if this critter were there we would have met. But then I always gave any bellycrawller a wide berth!

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