Rattlesnakes: Facts and fallacies

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11200661926877.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The venom of a rattlesnake is injected into its victim by a pair of hypodermic needle-like fangs.’);

The 11 species of rattlesnakes found in the United States are probably our most feared group of animals, and out of this apprehension has grown a plethora of myths and folklore. Several books dealing with this group of pit vipers have been published for both the herpetologist and the layman. In my opinion, the best book on rattlesnakes for the average person interested in their natural history is Rattlesnakes, written some 50 years ago by the late J. Frank Dobie, distinguished professor of English and folklorist at the University of Texas. This book is available from book sellers on the Internet.

It is difficult to choose a few stories to relate about these snakes that have circulated for years because there are so many, but the following are a few of my favorites:

Fang in the boot story: Supposedly, a man was bitten in the foot by a rattlesnake and subsequently died. The much-told story goes on to relate how the man’s infant son grows to manhood, and finding a pair of his father’s boots in the attic, puts them on and, in turn, dies from the venom remaining the fang that had broken off in the boot his father was wearing. The tale is further embellished by the grandson, in turn being poisoned, but he recovers and discovers the fang. Even as outrageous as this yarn is, there are elements of truth in it. Rattlesnake venom retains some of its potency when dry, and large rattlers can strike with such force that their fangs could penetrate a leather boot.

A rattlesnake is always a “gentleman;” Unfortunately, all rattlesnakes are not gentlemen (or ladies) and do not always rattle before striking. When rattlesnakes become upset, they usually vibrate their tails rapidly, which causes the rattles to strike together and produce a buzzing sound similar to that made by a cicada. Supposedly, one can tell the age of a rattler by counting the number of rattles, with each rattle representing one year. This is not true as each time the skin is shed, a rattle is added, and a snake may shed three to four times a year.

During warm weather, when the snakes are not sluggish, many will probably rattle, but the practice is not to be taken for granted. A biologist at the University of Oklahoma studied the rattling phenomenon in Arizona rattlesnakes and found less than 10 percent of them rattled before they struck.

Rattlesnakes will not cross a horse hair rope: Campers who sleep on the ground frequently encircle their bedroll with a bristly horse hair rope to protect themselves from unwanted visitors during the night. This yarn is without foundation as numerous authorities have observed and photographed rattlers casually gliding across such a rope without any apparent discomfort.

Once a rattlesnake is defanged, he is no longer dangerous: If a rattler loses one or both of his hypodermic needle-like fangs, they will be quickly replaced with new ones, making it just as dangerous as before.

Immature rattlesnakes are not venomous: I can personally attest to the fact that this belief is a fallacy. I had a friend and fellow graduate student whose primary interest in biology was herpetology (he later became one of the foremost “snakemen” in this country). He had captured a rather large canebrake rattlesnake and was keeping it in a cage for observation. One morning he was stunned to observe that the canebraker had given birth to a dozen babies. He asked my assistance in preserving them after he had removed them from the mother, and I rather reluctantly agreed. He dispatched the newborn reptiles, and I was putting one onto a specimen jar when I decided to pry open its mouth to examine the fangs. I foolishly touched one of the sharp fangs with the tip of my finger, but I gave no thought to it at the time. About a half an hour later, I noticed a hot, tingling sensation in my finger, along with a reddening of the area. The condition continued to worsen over the next two hours, engulfing my entire hand, before it finally subsided. I laugh now when someone insists a young rattlesnake is not venomous.

What are the largest rattlesnakes: From a standpoint of weight, the Western diamondback takes the prize. The Eastern diamondback attains the greatest length with the record being 8 feet in length. The Western diamondback is considered to be the most dangerous rattler, primarily because of its wide distribution and its aggressiveness.

We in northern Illinois should have no concern about encountering a dangerous rattlesnake as we wander about the countryside. The only member of the tribe present in this area is the rare Eastern massasauga, a small rattler whose venom is not very potent.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the June 29-July 5, 2005, issue

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