Updated: Jan 7, 2021
One morning during my prairie therapy I remember thinking about how I really wanted to see a rattlesnake. Its July and I still had not had the opportunity of sharing space with these terrifyingly beautiful beings. I’ve never had a serious fear of snakes, maybe a little creeped out but I’ve always respected them. I’ve grown to really enjoy seeing them in their natural habitat, especially rattlesnakes.
Rattler Stare by Fendi Despres
During the warm months I am always watching the ground closely when I'm on the trail or in the grass with the anticipation that a rattler may just focus into my sight as they come out of camouflage. It’ such a thrill to see one, my adrenaline skyrockets and my attention really focuses, causing me to be completely present in that moment. Nothing on my mind but the stare of a pit viper. After all, I am looking at a creature that can kill me in a split second.
Rattlesnakes are classified as pit vipers, belonging to the family Viperidae because they have a special organ, called a vomeronasal organ, in between their eyes and nose that detect heat. They can sense heat coming from warm blooded beings from several yards away. They are interested in things that give off a fairly small heat signature, like the size of a rodent. When they sense heat from larger mammals, such as us, they avoid wasting precious venom on something that is too large to consume. Producing venom is energetically expensive so why waste it unless they are being threatened.
The species I am most familiar with is the prairie rattlesnake. They are known for being a pretty docile species, minimally aggressive, and let me tell you, that was my experience on this particular morning. Prairie rattlers have cat like eyes with their pupils forming a vertical slit. Their heads are triangular shaped, and they grow to about 4ft in length. The one that I was fortunate to see that morning was about 3ft long and appeared to be having a super lazy morning. As I approached it, it gave me a nice one second rattle and then sat there and watched me as I took several photos of it tucked halfway into the willows.
I was taking some video and realized that it was starting to open its mouth. For a moment I thought it was going to show me its fangs but I was a little perplexed because it was not displaying any other defensive behavior, such as coiling up into a strike pose or rattling. Then as it continued to open its mouth, I realized that it was yawning! I did get to see its big beautiful fangs followed by the blinking of eyes like it was tired and just not motivated enough to give me the time of day. I was absolutely delighted to have experienced that moment. I had no idea that snakes yawned. Afterwards, it proceeded to slither fully into the willows next to the trail probably to get out of the heat and take a nap.
One of the most common phobias are a fear of snakes, yet most people have never seen a snake in the wild. Research suggests that we have evolved to learn to fear them. Throughout our evolutionary history we learned that fearing snakes was beneficial to our survival. Today, we have tools and knowledge that have allowed us to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of these highly specialized creatures. Their venom is a unique mixture of enzymes that cause hemorrhaging and paralyzes nerves. Their venom has two neurotoxins in it, both toxins inhibit neuromuscular transmission by blocking Ca2+ channels on the presynaptic side of the neuromuscular junction, meaning- paralysis. Using venom to capture prey conserves a lot of energy that would be needed to capture and subdue an animal.
Snake venom is rapidly evolving. There is high variation found between species and within individuals of the same species. This rapid evolution makes them a highly adaptable and resilient creature. They serve a very special function- pest control. They specialize on rodents. Rodent species easily outnumber humans on this planet. They are prolific breeders and some species can have up to ten litters per year or about 60 offspring. Rodents can cause us serious problems by consuming our crops, infesting our homes and passing around diseases. Rattlesnakes help keep their population numbers down to a more manageable population, less likely to cause us problems.
Along with the understanding of their ecological role, we have tools to observe them through a more appreciative lens, such as snake chaps, which I greatly appreciate. I use them quite a bit when I'm hiking through the grasses of the prairie and they make me feel far less on edge. We are also made aware, typically, not to do things like flip trash in rattlesnake habitat or reach our hands into spaces we can’t see. Having the knowledge of how to protect ourselves and the understanding of their importance, why they exist on the planet, nature does not waste resources molding a creature to have no function, gives us less fear and more acceptance than our distant ancestors.
Rattler Strike Pose by Fendi Despres
Their iconic rattles are not designed like what we think of as rattles. They don’t have little balls inside a hollow space like baby rattles do. The segments that make the rattle bump into each other to produce a sound. They’re empty hollow space! The rattle is made of the protein keratin, the same protein that makes our hair and nails, see we have more in common than you thought. Fortunately, evolution has blessed us with this rattle because the snakes are making us, and other creatures, aware that they could take a life in a split second. I personally find the sound of a rattlesnake rattle to be very exciting. It’s a unique sound that becomes distinguishable amongst other copycats. Other snake species, like the bull snake, make a hissing sound with their mouths to imitate the recognizable warning. Burrowing owls do the same thing! They create a hissing rattle like sound with their mouth to convince predators to back off. This warning system is interpreted by all kinds of different animal species on the planet, making the rattlesnake one to be respected.
Rather than quiver in fear passed down through the ages from our ancestors, I challenge you to view a snake with a different perspective. With the understanding that they are not out to hurt you and that we need them to maintain an equilibrium in rodent populations that can cause us far more damage than a snake can, plus we now have anti-venom! But also remembering that they deserve our respect for their services and for granting us with a warning system.