An ode to rattlesnakes

Speckled Rattlesnake

Several years ago on a spring day I was sitting outside talking to my mom on the phone when I noticed movement out at the back wall. In the corner a very large snake was slithering in between the fence rails. Her thick body oozed over the low cement barrier and her head cast about side to side, like she was sniffing the air. I watched mesmerized as her length kept spilling onto the rocky ground. She was a rosy color with creamy splotches and her head and body swayed rhythmically back and forth as she stretched high up the adjacent block wall. I later identified her as a speckled rattlesnake. Eventually she turned and slithered back into the desert, tracing an S pattern in the sand.
This is the time of year we watch out for baby rattlesnakes. At about a week old they have shed their first skin, grown one button of a rattle, stretch about 10-14 inches long and are out hunting rodents. Rattlesnakes are certainly scary, but these highly evolved animals perform an important job in keeping rodent populations under control.
Did you know that in addition to seeing with their eyes, rattlesnakes use “heat vision”? Behind each nostril is a heat-sensing pit that detects variances in temperature as far away as several yards. The heat given off by an animal creates a heat image that allows the snake to judge the size of the prey, even in complete darkness. The rattlesnake that entered our yard was surely using her heat vision to investigate.
And, did you know that the rattler’s long curved fangs actually rest inside the mouth parallel to the jaw line? When the snake opens its mouth to strike, muscles rotate the hollow fangs into bite position. The complex venom of the rattlesnake is designed to immobilize prey and begin the digestive process, saving valuable energy. Not all bites involve venom; perhaps 20% of snake bites are “dry”. Some say the baby snakes do not regulate their venom, so their bite may be most dangerous of all.
Male diamondback rattlesnakes engage in “combat dances” during breeding season. Two males will wrestle for dominance, raising one third of their bodies off the ground in a belly to belly match that can last thirty minutes or more until one snake retreats. Sometimes a third male will sneak in during this battle and breed with the females. The female will give birth to around 20 babies. Not a lot is known about what sort of maternal care she provides the youngsters.
The Sonoran Desert is home to more species of rattlesnake than anywhere else. Cool!


2 responses to “An ode to rattlesnakes

  1. As usual this is beautifully done! I could see the swaying and oozing and sense the fascination that I have experienced also…it was like I was there…and thanks for giving a little bit of good press for the badly maligned but highly beneficial rattler!

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