When you mention poisonous snakes to someone who lives in the United States; it’s a fair bet they’ll think of one snake before any other. This snake has been used as a means of fright and horror for many years by the U.S. media; even Hollywood has taken their turn demonizing what I consider to be one of the most interesting species of snake on the face of the planet. The first Rattlesnake Crotalus sp. species to be described according to texts I have read was either the Neotropical Rattlesnake C. durissus or the Timber Rattlesnake C. horridus. Both were described in 1758.
Prior to this scientific description however, the indigenous people knew of the Rattlesnake Crotalus sp. & some of them knew it as intimate part of their culture. According to Laurence M. Klauber, many indigenous tribes of North America regard the Rattlesnake as an avenger of wrong doing as well as being closely connected with the rain gods. This is evidenced especially by the Hopi Dance often referred to as the Snake Dance by European people but which in fact is a dance to bring about rain. He also says in his book Rattlesnakes Their Habits, Life Histories, & Influence on Mankind that some Cherokee dances were not danced until the Fall season when the Rattlesnake was in hibernation so as not to offend the Rattlesnake.
It would seem that we have a European to thank for the common misnomer of counting the Rattlesnakes caudal segments or rattles as they are commonly called to determine the age of the snake. Thomas Morton wrote a description of the Rattlesnake in 1637 in something titled New English Canaan. In this writing he refers to the segments of the rattle as being something that you can count to ascertain age. He implies that one rattle is added for every year the snake is alive. Today of course we know this as a true misnomer but it is one which is still rampant in some communities. Science tells us that with each shed the Rattlesnake adds a new segment to the rattle itself. Rattlesnakes may shed three times a year or once depending on circumstances. This goes without mentioning that rattles are often broken in the course of a lifetime or lost through the normal life of a Rattlesnake.
One of my personal favorites when it comes to misnomers about Rattlesnakes Crotalus sp. is one that even some experienced snake enthusiasts still believe today. It goes something like this. “Baby Rattlesnakes are more (dangerous or poisonous) than adults; reason being is that they can’t control their venom.” OK, now I want the reader to mull that over and really examine what’s being said. The keywords here are baby, venom, & control. Below is a breakout of why the above quoted text is scientifically false.
1. Control. All Rattlesnakes no matter their age or experience control exactly how much venom is injected during a bite.
2. Baby. Meaning smaller; we all agree right, babies are a SMALLER version of something else. How is it possible that a baby Rattlesnake will have a larger venom gland than an adult? Venom is stored in a gland which is actually a salivary gland. Adults being larger will have larger venom glands.
3. Venom. The venom of Rattlesnakes according to the studies I have read doesn’t get more potent as the snake grows, it always has the same potential whether it just shed after being born or if it’s ten years old.
Thanks to both Hollywood and the local news a lot of people not familiar with Rattlesnakes or the outdoors per se are or soon will be; convinced that snakes are a rampant danger to any community. This couldn’t be farther from the truth; but the idiom of “If it bleeds, it leads.” Follows not only sensational journalism but is one that Hollywood has adapted itself to now as well. I can recall a story of where a child was bitten by a snake at a school where the biology teacher kept a snake for teaching.
It wasn’t a big deal the child was fine and things were handled as they should have been. However, what was interesting is how three or four different newspapers reported the incident in escalating fashion. The first reported a child being bitten and everyone involved as sorry etc. By the time you read the fourth paper the snake seemed to have been lying in wait and then when opportunity came leaped from the cage and mauled the child with a vengeance. It’s like the children’s game we used to call Rumor or some call it telephone the further down the line the story goes the more distorted it becomes.
In reality what happened was reported by the original newspaper author that interviewed the involved parties. For the sake of brevity I’m paraphrasing. ‘The child handled the class rodent before going to pick up the snake. The snake made a mistake. It bit the child, realizing the child wasn’t prey the snake released the child.’ End of story.
Hollywood feeds this fear with movies featuring snakes coming from the river to snatch people out of boats and then consume them whole. They also show one of the biggest misconceptions which is still around today which is that Rattlesnakes will chase people. While I would like to say that snakes don’t chase people there a couple that will actually give chase if you run from them. To my knowledge this show is all a bluff and if you stand your ground they will move right past you or turn tail themselves. Rattlesnakes however have never been known or documented to chase anyone with any intent of harm or otherwise scaring someone.
Even the channels dedicated to shows about animals are getting in on the act. I remember watching one famous herpetologist collecting Rattlesnakes in the United States and thinking to myself this is insane. According to the 1 hour show he had caught more Rattlesnakes than I had seen in a year of actively looking for them in places where there were known to be active. Investigating this a little further I discovered all the snakes were planted and were captives not actual wild snakes.
My point to this is that the average viewer after watching this is thinking that everywhere they go there is going to be a Rattlesnake. This is just not true. A study done by a San Diego Zoon Herpetologist showed that there is about 1 Rattlesnake per football field. You’re more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to be bitten by a Rattlesnake.
I can only hope this sheds some light on to the incredible world of Rattlesnakes and where some of the misinformation came from. Rattlesnakes are integral part of the world. They help keep rodent populations which are known disease carriers in check. Not to mention that they also provide venom that is now being used in medicines for blood pressure, and other such applications. If you see a Rattlesnake instead of showing it your heel as the bible suggests, give it a nod and move away slowly. Who knows, it may return the favor of saving its life one day.
Special Author note: This article was directly inspired by an upcoming article by Corinna Bechko appearing in Herpetoculture House eZine in March 2011.