November 18, 2012

A few things to know about rattlesnakes that the Lone Ranger and Tonto didn’t

Modified tail scales form a rattle on a Wester...
Modified tail scales form a rattle on a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Crotalus atrox. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a post from a few days ago, I wrote about a trip a friend and I took to eastern Oregon near the Idaho border in search of rattlesnakes. We were told the location of a rattlesnake den in which we caught several of the snakes. Over the years, I’ve had several encounters with rattlesnakes while either hiking or camping in Oregon, but really knew little about them. Even after keeping a live rattlesnake in an aquarium for a few years in my living room, feeding it mice on occasion, I still knew little about them. So I did some research on rattlesnakes, which might help folks understand them a little better.

Rattlesnake rattles
Rattlesnake rattles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The most unique characteristic of a rattlesnake is its rattle. When born, they have what is called a “prebutton,” which is lost the first time the snake sheds its skin. At that them the prebutton is replaced by a button. Each time a rattlesnake sheds its skin, which is one to four times a year, anther button or segment is added to the rattle. So, when snakes are very young, they can’t rattle, because it takes at least two buttons to make a rattle sound. These buttons aren’t like a baby rattle, either. There is nothing inside of them. Instead, the rattle sound is generated by the buttons make contact with each other. This sound, which is enough to alert someone standing even at some distance, is generated by the snake’s tail moving back and forth 60 or more times per second.

The rattle is composed of keratin, the same stuff that forms our fingernails. Because of this, the buttons composing the rattle can break off. That is why a rattlesnake is constantly replacing the rattles when it sheds.
Western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox).
Western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Adult rattlesnakes vary in length, ranging from 1.5 feet up to eight feet. Their colors vary by species, while the usually have diamond or hexagon shaped blotches on their skin.

How they sense prey or an enemy is through sensory organs located behind each nostril is a heat sensing pit. These pits can detect differences in temperature from several yards away. It is said that these animals can detect heat from a lit candle at a distance of 30 feet.

Their eyes also sense heat by seeing in infrared. This helps them hunt at night, when vision is impaired by darkness. The larger an animal, the more heat it gives off, letting the snake whether it should tangle with an animal or hide.

When a rattler bites, its fangs act as hypodermic syringes, ejecting a mix of enzymes into its prey. These enzymes destroy blood and paralyze nerves.


Being cold blooded, rattlesnakes are more active from the period from spring through fall, because that is when temperatures are at their greatest. Rattlesnakes are most often seen when temperatures are between 70 and 90 degrees, regardless of the time of day or time of year.
English: watch for rattlesnakes sign
English: watch for rattlesnakes sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 People frequently get bit by rattlers when picking up a piece of wood from the ground, reaching up to grab a rock ledge, walking in tall grass or around logs, wood piles, rocks. We found one in a firepit that had not been used for some time after removing some leftover wood from the pit. Rattlesnakes can also swim.

When hiking in rattlesnake country, wear ankle high boots and never walk barefoot or in sandals. I nearly stepped on one along the shores of the Deschutes River while walking in flip-flops. I was lucky!


If you do happen to walk along the shores of the Deschutes River in flip-flops and are bit, it is suggested you do the following:


*Try to remain calm.

*Keep your heart from beating faster by lying down if you can. Obviously, if you are alone, you need to find help.

*Keep a bitten limb lower than your heart.

*Wash the wound gently with soap and water.

*Remove anything that will constrict swelling, like watches, rings, bracelets or other jewelry.

*Do not try to suck out the venom.

*Get medical help as soon as possible.


Another interesting factoid is even when a rattler is dead it can still bite by way of a reflex action. Even a snakes head when removed from the body can bite.


It is suggested that after you kill a rattlesnake, remove its head with a shovel and bury it. Yellow jackets will feed on a dead snake if left above the ground. If they ingest the venom and sting someone, the venom can be released into a person’s blood stream.


Here is a little episode that happened a few days ago. A Southern California teenage girl was bitten by rattlesnakes at least six times after climbing a hill in San Diego in search of a cellphone signal.


She said she heard rattlesnakes all over and attempted to run back to her uncle’s house, but stepped on a nest of the snakes. Apparently, she blacked out but made it back to her uncle’s home. Her uncle took her to a local hospital after she had tied a tourniquet around her leg.


You should never tie a tourniquet around a limb after being bitten by a rattlesnake. Furthermore, the uncle tried to suck the venom out of the wounds, which is a no-no. The human saliva can infect a wound. Also, never put ice on the area that is bitten.


The girl remained in the intensive care unit of the hospital for four days and received 24 vials of antivenom. She is expected to make a full recovery.


This jokes on me:


It’s an oldy but goody: The Lone Ranger and Tonto were out and about when the Lone Ranger was bitten on the butt by a rattlesnake. Knowing not what to do, the Lone Ranger told Tonto to go to town to ask the doctor what to do.


The doctor told Tonto he needed to suck the poison out the wound or the Lone Ranger would die.


When Tonto returned, the Lone Ranger asked Tonto what the doctor had said. Tonto told the Lone Ranger, “You’re gonna die.”

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