|Coiled and ready to strike, an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes warns its enemies with a loud persistent rattle|
September 10, 2012
I’ve encountered quite a few snakes during the 25 years I’ve lived in Florida. The vast majority has been harmless black racers, corn snakes, king snakes, garter snakes and rat snakes but occasionally I’ve chanced upon a venomous water moccasin along the lakeside in the tall grasses. Although rattlesnakes live in Central Florida too, I’ve seldom seen them.
Until last week.
I was walking down the dirt road that leads to our driveway when I noticed the distinctive track a snake makes in sandy soil. The track, which looks like a series of elongated attached S's, stretched from one side of the road to the other.
“Hmm,” I thought to myself, “I wonder what type of snake made that track and where it is now.”
I followed the serpentine trail with my eyes into the bamboo thicket at road’s edge and suddenly realized the snake was still there. And it was HUGE!
I was looking at the tail end of what appeared at first glance to be monster reptile. The part of its body that I could see was thicker than my arm.
My first thought was “Ball python.” Then I heard the rattle.
“Oh my gosh!” I said to myself as I rapidly backed away. “It’s a rattlesnake. An immense rattlesnake with an incredibly loud rattle!”
I had my camera with me and began to take pictures, albeit from a safe distance (thank you, zoom lens!). I also had my cell phone and immediately called Ralph.
“Get into the car and come out here now,” I commanded. “There’s a gigantic rattlesnake just outside the entry!”
Moments later, my husband appeared with the car, which I gratefully got into. We opened the windows, drove alongside the spot where the snake - an Eastern diamondback - posed coiled and rattling with intensity.
“Can you believe it,” I said. “All these years we’ve lived here and never seen a rattlesnake and now we come upon the mother of all rattlers. If this snake stretched out, I bet it would be at least six feet long. Do you see how thick around it is?”
My husband shared my amazement not only of the animal’s girth but also of the sound emanating from its nether region. Until that day, neither of us had ever heard a rattlesnake rattle in the wild.
“It sounds like cicadas,” Ralph said and I agreed.
A rattlesnake’s rattle is composed of hollow, interlocked segments of a tough protein called keratin, the same material that forms human fingernails and animal hooves. When the viper senses danger its muscles contract – around 50 times a second – causing the tan-colored keratin segments to knock against each other. The resulting noise is a loud rattle that can last up to three hours.
Ralph and I didn’t wait three hours but the sound lasted far longer than we expected.
The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest and heaviest rattlesnake species in North America. With a lifespan of 10 to 20 years, it can achieve an average length of 3.5 to 5.5 feet but the rare specimen measures in at 7.5 feet and weigh up to 15 pounds. The preferred habitat of these predatory creatures is dry upland, pine forests, palmetto flatwoods as well as marshy lowlands. They often frequent the same territory as gopher tortoises. They even use gopher tortoise burrows for shelter.
Unless threatened, rattlesnakes are surprising non-aggressive toward people. The person who foolishly prods, pokes, or otherwise provokes a rattler sets himself up for attack while individuals wise enough to heed warning signals can, like Ralph and I did, walk away unharmed.
Not so lucky are rats, mice, birds, rabbits and squirrels. Eastern diamondbacks masterfully practice the art of ambush. Using highly sensitive glands, these stealthy stalkers detect scents, perceive body heat and respond to vibration. After finding and trailing potential prey, the well-camouflaged snake waits patiently for the animal to appear before striking. Diamondbacks can strike one-third of their body length injecting venom lethal to small animals. Once bitten, prey wanders off to die. The snake follows to consume its meal.
Although I was only vaguely aware of pit vipers when I encountered the rattlesnake, I immediately knew I had stumbled upon an amazing survivor. Ralph and I observed an animal that has managed to avoid human interaction long enough to grow to a most impressive size. The first thought of many would be to kill it before it hurts someone but I simply felt honored to have witnessed such an amazing creature in the wild.
Knowing that a snake of such awe-inspiring girth, length and potentially lethal powers is living nearby has caused me to be more aware but not to feel cowed. The way I see it, snakes have as much right as we do to live on the land. Some neighbors just want to be left alone. I understand that because I feel that way too.
PUTTING THE DANGER OF SNAKEBITE IN PERSPECTIVE...
There are approximately 311 million people living in the United States today and every year venomous snakes bite about 7,000 of us resulting in an average of 5 deaths.
By comparison, dogs bite 4.7 million people annually resulting in 800,000 hospitalizations and an average of 15 deaths.