Rattlesnakes are real attention grabbers in the great outdoors.
Serpents can be the last thing on an outdoors lover’s mind—then a rasping rattle sounds from the nearby brush, and it is all you think about.
Like anything else, many myths and misconceptions about rattlesnakes abound, so we turned to one of the world’s foremost snake experts Austin Stevens, to discuss rattlers. Stevens is the host of Austin Stevens Adventure and Austin Stevens, Snakemaster.
Q: Of the rattlesnakes you have encountered, which do you consider the most interesting and which, in terms of its behavior, is the most potentially dangerous to humans?
A: First, let me say, I really like rattlesnakes. They are among the most interesting and unique of all venomous species of snakes found on this planet. Certainly, for the most part, they are potentially dangerous to humans, but so are many other species.
What sets rattlesnakes apart, however is the rattle, a feature specifically designed to afford warning of their presence to any creature not considered prey. Whereas other venomous snakes might more easily be stepped on, and so entice a retaliatory defensive bite, the rattlesnake gives loud and clear warning of its presence. Very considerate, I feel.
The United States has about 16 species of rattlesnakes. To the best of my knowledge, it is estimated that 7 to 8,000 people per year receive venomous bites in the United States, from a variety of snake species. About five prove fatal.
Most fatal bites are attributed to the eastern and western diamondback rattlesnakes. Because of its size, speed of strike, and toxic venom, the eastern diamondback is generally considered the most dangerous snake in North America.
The slightly smaller western diamondback, which is common in Texas, is just as lethal, however, and is more likely to stand its ground when threatened. They are also more prolific than the eastern diamondback, and thus more often encountered. Suffice it to say, no rattlesnake, large or small, should be taken for granted. At the same time, it is important to note, that if left undisturbed, like all snakes, these rattlesnakes will avoid confrontation.
Q: How does the western diamondback compare in terms of its disposition/behavior with other vipers from the world like the fer-de-lance and Gaboon for example?
A: All the vipers of the world are venomous and therefore potentially dangerous. They possess the most advanced venom injection system, incorporating large, curved, retractable hollow fangs, and a fast strike.
Rattlesnakes have the added advantage of heat-sensitive pits situated between the eye and nostril, used to locate warm-blooded prey. This means they can even detect prey in the dark. In Central and South America, the fer-de-lance, a snake much like a rattlesnake without a rattle, is prolific and is responsible for most bites to humans in those regions.
Though they are of similar design and behavior, the old world vipers, such as the puff adder and Gaboon viper of Africa, have no heat pits and must rely on sight and particles collected on their tongues to accurately strike prey. They are less active than rattlesnakes and give no warning of their presence, relying on immobility and camouflage to avoid detection; thus people are more likely to step on them.
Q: There are rumors of gigantic eastern diamondbacks killed and seen over the years. What do you think the maximum potential size is for this species?
A: As mentioned before, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest venomous snake in North America, and is known to average around 5.5 feet in length. The largest specimens found have been closer to eight feet, weighing in at about 10 pounds—a formidable snake, to say the least.
Snakes grow all their lives, though the process slows as they get older. An eastern diamondback rattlesnake may live to be 20 years old. No one knows for sure in the wild. Its rate of growth would most commonly depend on the availability of food, though some specimens just simply do grow faster and bigger than others. (As noted in captive specimens)
I am often asked to comment about dead snakes in photographs being held up to the camera with exaggerated claims to their size. In these instances it is immediately obvious that the snake is extended close to the lens, making it look bigger, while the person holding out the specimen, usually on a pole, looks that much smaller in the back ground.
Claims of 15-foot rattlers being spotted have never been substantiated, and are ludicrous. Having said this, it is not unrealistic to imagine that in some uninhabited wilderness area where humans have not made their presence over abundant, there might still be unrecorded eastern diamondbacks in excess of 8.5 feet in length.
Q: What are the advantages, if any, of having rattlesnakes in the environment?
A: Reptiles, especially snakes, are a hard resource to sell to the public as worth conserving, especially as they are not cute and cuddly creatures to be made a fuss of. However, like all wild creatures on the planet, snakes form an important part in the chain that connects all natural things.
Though snakes of different species feed on a variety of prey, most take rodents, those elusive, very numerous, and destructive little creatures that plague farms and destroy crops. Each individual snake is responsible for the death of hundreds of rodents each year and is nature’s best defense against their reaching plague proportions. If you’re concerned about the presence of snakes in an area, it would be better to take precautions rather than kill snakes indiscriminately.
Unless cornered and/or forced to defend themselves, snakes will certainly avoid confrontation with humans.
To order Austin Steven’s latest book, Snakemaster: Wildlife Adventures with the World’s Most Dangerous Reptiles, go to www.skyhorsepublishing.com.
Rattlesnake roundups have been part of Texas for decades but there is a new way of celebrating these serpents—rattlesnake conservation events. They focus on live exhibitions and education talks.
The Texas Rattlesnake Festival will be held March 12-13 at the Lone Star Expo Center in Conroe. For more information go to www.texasrattlesnakefestival.com.
Lone Star Snake Days will be held at the Travis County Expo Center April 30 and May 1. For more information go to http://lonestarrattlesnakedays.org
Visit www. lonestarrattlesnakedays.org for details.
—story by Chester Moore