12 remarkable facts about rattlesnakes
Because they are adaptable enough to live in desert sand dunes, wet swamps, and green grasslands, rattlesnakes can be found in a diverse range of habitats in the United States, Mexico, and South America.Today there are over 30 recognized species of rattlesnakes, two of which are considered endangered due to habitat loss and hunting.
One of the most misunderstood members of the animal kingdom, rattlesnakes actually play an incredibly important role in nature by controlling populations of small mammals as predators and providing food for larger animals as prey. Therefore, these cold-blooded reptiles deserve to be considered important parts of a balanced ecosystem. Here are 12 things you might not know about rattlesnakes.
1. Rattlesnake rattles are made from keratin
Rattlesnakes are well known for the homonymous “rattles” found at the end of their stories. The rattle is made of various interlocking rings of keratin, the same material as human hair, skin, and nails. When the snake holds and vibrates the tip of its tail, the keratin segments collide and produce a unique hiss to ward off potential predators.
2. They add a rattle segment every time they lose
Once rattlesnakes emerge from their old skin and go through the molting process, their bodies naturally add an extra segment to their rattles each time. However, that doesn’t mean that you can necessarily tell a rattle’s age by its tail length, as it’s common for segments of the rattle to break off as they age.
3. There are more species in Arizona than anywhere else
Scientists recognize between 32 and 45 different species of rattlesnakes, and many of them live in the state of Arizona.This includes the Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake, which is the largest rattlesnake in the West, as well as the Sidewinder Rattlesnake, known for its horns and side-winding movements. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, four species receive special protection in Arizona: the rock rattlesnake; the flat-nosed rattlesnake; the two-spotted rattlesnake; and the Massasauga rattlesnake.
4. They “hear” by detecting vibrations
Like other snakes, rattlesnakes have an inner ear structure without an eardrum, which means they have no way of detecting airborne sounds. While some reptiles, such as certain types of lizards, have developed eardrum membranes, a snake’s inner ear is directly connected to their jawbone. Instead, snakes must rely on sensing vibrations through their jaws. However, biologists still wonder if snakes detect sound through pressure or mechanical vibrations through the body.
5. Fatal rattlesnake bites are rare
Many of us learn to fear rattlesnakes – after all, they hiss, snap, and, if provoked further, bite. The good news is that they never search for humans. Most people who are bitten have accidentally stumbled upon a rattlesnake or attempted to handle one. And according to the Arizona Poisons and Drugs Information Center, less than 1% of rattlesnake bites result in death.
Still, that doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely dangerous if they aren’t dealt with in a timely manner. All rattlesnake bites should be followed by immediate travel to the hospital. If you hear that rattle, don’t stick around to see what comes next; the rattlesnake can strike at a speed of five tenths of a second.
6. Their fangs have hinges
Rattlesnakes are solenoglyphic snakes that belong to the viper family, which explains their particularly large fangs. These types of fangs are hollow and sharp, similar to a hypodermic needle, and can inject venom.They are also articulated and lie flat against the snake’s upper jaw while the mouth is closed, only to jump forward perpendicularly when the snake enters to strike. Different snakes produce different venoms and can even vary between snakes of the same species (like the Mojave rattlesnake, whose venom composition can be highly neurotoxic or highly hemorrhagic.)
7. Rattlesnake eyes have vertical pupils
Unlike grass snakes, rattlesnakes have vertical pupils in their eyes, similar to the eyes of cats. Studies have shown that these slit pupils help rattlesnakes ambush their prey because they facilitate depth perception. Research in 2015 found that species with vertically elongated pupils, such as rattlesnakes, were more likely to be ambush predators that hunt day or night.
8. Women have live births
Rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous, which means they do not lay eggs. In contrast, female rattlesnakes carry and incubate their eggs inside their bodies for around 90 days before giving birth to live young. When a baby rattlesnake is born, it emerges fully developed and enveloped inside a membrane that must be pierced before taking its first breath. The breeding season for most species is in the spring, and a female only breeds every two years.
9. Their facial pits smell of heat
Although they do not have limbs, rattlesnakes are excellent predators. This is in part due to the heat-sensitive pits on either side of their heads that make small animals visible to rattlesnakes, even in complete darkness. The pits help detect heat, transmitting nerves to the same area of the snake’s brain that receives the optic nerve impulses so it can “see” the heated image of its prey.An animal only needs to be slightly warmer than its surroundings for a rattlesnake to successfully detect it and strike accurately. Like all snakes, rattlesnakes have a Jacobson’s organ (also called a vomeronasal organ) on the roof of their mouth to detect, taste, and smell substances in the air.
10. They only eat every two weeks
Rattlesnakes only eat when they are hungry, so an adult typically spends about two weeks between meals on average. The exact length of time depends on the size of their last meal. Rattlesnakes typically hunt mice, rats, squirrels, and rabbits, but they will also eat birds if they can catch them. A younger rattlesnake tends to eat more often, up to once a week.
11. Baby rattlesnakes are always dangerous
Studies show that, contrary to popular belief, larger rattlesnakes inject more venom than smaller ones. As a snake grows, the amount of venom stored in its poison glands increases, so it can release more of it when it strikes. Since several factors can affect the severity of the bite, including the victim’s age and size, snake provocation, the bite site, and even the victim’s clothing, the spread of some snakebite myths leads to dangerous misinformation. Despite their small size, baby rattlesnakes still have enough venom to inflict serious damage, so it is important to treat any rattlesnake bite as a medical emergency.
12. Three species are threatened
While most rattlesnake species are not threatened, there are three distinct species of concern, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Endemic to Isla Santa Catalina, the Santa Catalina Rattlesnake is considered Critically Endangered, while the Tancitaran Dusky Rattlesnake is listed as Endangered due to its limited range in Mexico.Likewise, the long-tailed rattlesnake is listed as “vulnerable” because it is so rare, and only a few specimens in western Mexico have been identified over the years.
Saving endangered rattlesnakes
- Supporting legislation and Conservation efforts that protect snake habitats and promote responsible management of forestry and agriculture.
- Learn about rattlesnake safety to avoid confrontations.
- If you live in an area prone to rattlesnakes, consider installing a “rattlesnake-proof” fence on your property and remove piles of stones or boards around the house.