A Rustling in the Rocks

Aug 12th, 2021

If you’ve been hiking, riding, or even camping in many parts of the country, you may have kept a metaphorical antenna tuned to the sound of rattlesnakes, a critter whose iconic chchchch sound casts fear into the hearts of people around the country who dream of stepping foot in the outdoors.

I have occasionally been teased for my snakevangelism, singing the praises of rattlesnakes as timid, polite ground dwellers who are kind enough to let us know when we’ve gotten too close for their comfort and that they may possibly feel the need to maybe potentially protect themselves if we don’t heed their warnings. I spoke with Ryan Dumas, Head Keeper in the Herpetology & Fish department of the Cincinnati Zoo, to see if my affectionate interpretation of that unmistakable sound was accurate or naïve, and whether he had any tips on how to keep humans, pets, and even the snakes safe as people venture farther from their dens and closer to the snakes’. These answers have been slightly edited from their direct quotes.

I am under the impression that rattlesnakes are very sweet and timid snakes that give us the courtesy of letting us know they are stressed and may attack before actually defending their space. How naïve is this?

It’s nice of them to give you that warning. You don’t always get it depending on how close you are. More people get injured and bitten by snakes by trying to kill them or relocate them than just leaving them alone. It’s best to either just let the snake alone or call a local county official or park and alert them there’s an animal in need of relocation.

If a rattlesnake is giving warning signals and is in my path, can I go around it? Is it protecting eggs? Is walking through the brush more dangerous? Should I turn around? 

Definitely do not mess with it. Rattlesnakes all give birth to live young. If they are gravid (carrying eggs), they may be basking (lying in the sun), but if it’s ready to have young it will likely be hiding in a spot. It’s very circumstantial. You can’t go wrong turning around. If you turn around, bike a bit, then come back, the snake will probably be gone because they don’t like to be exposed.

What are good places to avoid where rattlers might live if you’re hanging out on some dirt paths?

Anything that you can see that has a place to hide where they can feel secure. If it’s the heat of the day, they’re probably sheltered up somewhere. If there’s a tumble of rocks somewhere, that’s probably a place you want to be careful because it will be a nice cool place. Any kind of old debris, old mattresses, carpet, large pieces of something manmade, a lot of shade.

If you’re on a paved road, snakes may be on pavement around dusk to soak up some of the heat still in the tarmac after the sun’s gone down. That can be true for dirt roads that have a lot of sun exposure as well.

Their optimal temps change from species to species and region to region, depending on elevation, size, atmosphere, etc. They get energy to do things from warming up. They don’t need to regulate the way we do and use all that energy that we do, they just do it in the sun.

Where do rattlesnakes sleep? Underground?

They usually are going to rest wherever it’s coolest. Most of them have optimal body temperatures that aren’t nearly as hot as most people think. The longer they’re out, the larger chance they have of being predated upon. They don’t want to be seen and exposed. They like to feel secure. They are positive thigmotactic, which means they like to feel touched on all sides. If you have a big box, a rattlesnake make feel secure, but if you have a smaller one that’s the size of their body, just a few feet off the ground, that would feel best. They don’t burrow but they will utilize a burrow.

How far can a rattlesnake leap?

They can’t really jump. They can strike half their body length or a third their body length. Some small ones can strike with enough force that they leap off the ground. If you are close enough to get struck, you are either very unfortunate as to where you put your hand or foot, or you interacted purposefully in a way to make the snake feel threatened.

Is it true that baby rattlers don’t know when to stop injecting venom so they’ll actually just kill you?

No, it’s the same venom. You may be able to say it’s more concentrated because they haven’t lived long enough to inundate their body with water. They may give more venom because they are more scared because they’re smaller. A baby rattlesnake is only a half an inch tall so a five-foot human looks like a giant. I imagine a baby can control it to some degree, but that’s speculation.

Is there a difference between rattlesnakes in different regions, and should someone who grew up, say, in Appalachia use the same skills they learned there when interacting with rattlesnakes in New Mexico? 

Yes, if your skill is to just avoid them. If you do it in the east, continue to do it in the west. If you limit your interactions, you limit your ability for something bad to happen. Snakes in the east are more heavy-bodied and slower moving, where snakes in the west are a bit faster and more aggressive.

What’s the best way to prepare a snake (for cooking/eating)?

The best way is to go to a restaurant that prepares it and eat their recipe.

Do venom antidotes really work?

Antivenoms are not antidotes, but they do save lives. They are dangerous in their own ways, but a professional who knows how to use them can save a life. Most areas that have a high population of rattlesnakes or other venomous snakes will have some and will transport it if you need it. Many antivenoms work for many breeds and species of snakes. Profab is the most commonly used, and that’s good for pit vipers, which is copperheads and rattlesnakes.

Besides not getting bitten, what’s the best way to treat a rattlesnake bite, and is that different from other venomous snake bites?

The best thing you can do is stay calm and limit activity. Seek help. The more spooked you get and the faster your heart pumps, the more the venom will get into your bloodstream. By keeping calm, it will slow the process. If you have a friend with you, let them care for you, let them drive. If you are the friend, keep your bitten friend calm, ask them questions about positive things, which will help keep their mind off the bite but will also help keep an eye on how well the person is doing cognitively. 

My advice for everyone is to avoid [getting bitten]. Most are active at dawn and dusk. If you aren’t familiar with the area, then maybe avoid going out during that time if it’s not a well-maintained trail. Limit interactions as much as possible. Keep your wits about you, and if you hear a rattle, stop and listen to where it’s coming from so you can avoid it. If you hear it, slowly and calmly move away from it. It won’t chase you or attack you unless you are actively threatening it. The snake’s best defense is camouflage, so in most circumstances they see you and just try to keep hidden because that costs them nothing.

If you are in a new area and are concerned, call the local park authority and ask them if there’s been any activity and if there’s any behavior you should adopt or adjust to keep you and the snakes safe.

It’s good to keep in mind that there are only like three rattlesnake deaths per year, if that. Additionally, a quarter of bites are theorized to be dry bites. Venom is not free to produce, it takes energy, and they don’t want to make more or have to use it if unnecessary. If they unload venom with a defensive bite, it may mean they can’t eat. 

Dumas finished our conversation with a jewel of wisdom. We were discussing festivals that celebrated the killing of rattlesnakes, and general regional cultural habits aimed at eradication rather than cohabitation. “One of the tougher things for people to do is to open up and be available to different perspectives,” he told me. “All animals play a vital role in the ecosystem and keep it in check, and that includes rattlesnakes. The more you interact with the rattlers, the higher your chance of getting bitten, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are things that predate the traditions of killing snakes, like hawks and rodents, and by killing off the rattlesnakes it negatively impacts a lot of other species.” As a lover of rattlesnakes for all their danger and charm, hearing the best thing I can do for them is to leave them alone is music to my ears, even more beautiful than that highly sensory chchchchch of my favorite reptile.

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