The American Rattlesnake

Yogi Berra, a man noted for his sagacious quips, once said, “There are some people, who if they don’t already know, you can’t tell them.” Yogi’s tidbit of worldly advice is especially true when it comes to rattlesnakes.

The rattlesnake is the most feared animal in the western hemisphere. The distinctive sound made by the rattle of its tail is an eloquent warning that few misinterpret.

Most sane people, who come across a rattlesnake have the genetically inherited common sense to cease all forward motion and back away from the creature. Unfortunately, every year approximately seven thousand people receive a venomous bite from this cold blooded carnivorous reptile. And interestingly, it should not surprise the intelligent reader that seventy percent of the people bit by a rattlesnake are males between the ages of sixteen and twenty-seven. Most of us know the type—they are the self imagined invincible ones who believe they know it all. It’s usually not a good practice to cast blame on a dimwitted victim. But let’s be honest; being a show-off and messing with a rattlesnake is just plain dumb.

The powerful hollow fangs of the rattlesnake can pierce the thick hide of a buffalo. They function like natural hypodermic needles and are capable of injecting a lethal dose of poison when the snake senses a threat.

Toxic compounds in the venom destroy tissue and kill blood cells. This wreaks havoc with the circulatory system. It also causes internal bleeding and respiratory failure. Besides the acute pain from the toxins, survivors often lose fingers, toes, feet, and hands. So, even if you are wearing gloves and high leather boots, you should give a rattlesnake a wide berth if you ever encounter one.

Native American cultures held conflicting opinions of the rattlesnake. Some pre-Columbian tribes considered the snake to be a good omen because of its power to kill. And, other tribes perceived the snake’s ability to kill as a sign of evil and destruction. But, regardless of how a tribe viewed the creature—the rattlesnake was an important part of their culture. Totems of the serpent were used in their sacred rituals. And, the canyons of the arid American southwest are riddled with prehistoric rock art depicting the rattlesnake and other indigenous animals.

On the other side of the North American continent, in the State of Ohio, hundreds of earthen mounds built by Native Americans dot the landscape. Many are over three thousand years old. The most striking mound created by Native Americans is in the shape of a snake. Stretching more than 400 meters “Serpent Mound” is the largest surviving example of a prehistoric effigy mound in the world. The beautifully preserved ancient earthwork depicts the form of a slithering serpent with an oval shaped head.

In Mesoamerica, an area we now call Central America, the Aztec civilization worshiped a Plumed Serpent they named Quetzalcoatl—a god that took the combined form of a bird and rattlesnake. Throughout Central and South America images of the snake are a common find at archeological sites.

Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus.

Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Borbonicus.

In modern times, the habitat of this venomous pit viper extends from the mountains of southwestern Canada, to the grassy plains of northern Argentina.

There are thirty-six known species of rattlesnakes with about seventy subspecies. Make no mistake, they are all dangerous. But, by far the most deadly rattlesnake in the world is the Mohave rattlesnake. In its natural desert environment; camouflage, speed, and aggressiveness enhances its ability to kill small rodents and birds. However, those attributes in the viper increases the danger of a hiker or camper being bit. The snake is greenish brown in color, and when fully grown it’s about thirty inches long. But, don’t let its size deceive you. The venom of the Mohave rattlesnake is conservatively estimated to be ten times more lethal than any other rattlesnake. So obviously, if you are hiking in an area where these creatures reside; be extremely careful where you step. Very few people survive a nip in the leg from this serpent.

A few years ago, an Arizona woman in living in the small town of Paulden was bit by a Mohave rattlesnake when she stepped out of her home to walk to her car. The neurotoxins in a Mohave’s venom are very deceiving and the bite did not seem serious to her. The woman’s first instinct was to strike back at the snake. She picked up a garden rake and unknowingly wasted precious time trying to kill the elusive reptile. Within minutes she was writhing in pain and gasping for air. Her husband rushed from the house, realized what had happened and called for an ambulance. The emergency dispatcher understood the seriousness of the situation and sent a helicopter to airlift the woman to a hospital in Flagstaff. She died on the way.

So, if you happen to hear the unique sound made by the flickering of a rattlesnake’s tail—stop moving, try to assess the location of the snake, and by all means retreat.

However, if you ever visit the Isle of Santa Catalina, beware of the oxymoronic Catalina rattlesnake. Over the centuries the rattlesnakes isolated on that small island off the coast of California have evolved and no longer have the ability to grow a rattle.