Rattlesnakes are venomous snakes that form the genera Crotalus and Sistrurus of the subfamily Crotalinae (the pit vipers). All rattlesnakes are vipers. Rattlesnakes are predators that live in a wide array of habitats, hunting small animals such as birds and rodents.
In this blog, Pritish Kumar tells interesting facts about the world’s Most Dangerous Venomous Snake Rattlesnakes
Rattlesnakes receive their name from the rattle located at the end of their tails, which makes a loud rattling noise when vibrated that deters predators or serves as a warning to passers-by. Rattlesnakes are the leading contributor to snakebite injuries in North America, but rarely bite unless provoked or threatened; if treated promptly, the bites are seldom fatal.
Rattlesnakes are native to the Americas, living in diverse habitats from southern Canada to central Argentina. The large majority of species lives in the American Southwest and Mexico. Four species may be found east of the Mississippi River, and two in South America. In the United States, the state with the most types of rattlesnakes is Arizona, with 13. They are usually found in grasslands.
Rattlesnakes are found in almost every habitat type capable of supporting terrestrial ectothermic vertebrates, but individual species can have extremely specific habitat requirements, only able to live within certain plant associations in a narrow range of altitudes. Most species live near open, rocky areas. Rocks offer them cover from predators, plentiful prey (e.g. rodents, lizards, insects, etc. that live amidst the rocks), and open basking areas.
Rattlesnakes typically consume mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels, small birds, and other small animals. They lie in wait for their prey, or hunt for it in holes. The rattlesnake’s defense and hunting mechanisms are bound to its physiology and its environment. More importantly environmental temperature can influence the ability of ectotherms. The prey is killed quickly with a venomous bite as opposed to constriction. If the bitten prey moves away before dying, the rattlesnake can follow it by its scent.
Rattlesnakes are believed to require at least their own body weight in water annually to remain hydrated. The method by which they drink depends on the water source. In larger bodies of water (streams, ponds, etc.), they submerge their heads and ingest water by opening and closing their jaws, which sucks in water. If drinking dew or small puddles, they sip the liquid either by capillary action or by flattening and flooding their lower jaws.
Newborn rattlesnakes are heavily preyed upon by a variety of species, including cats, ravens, crows, roadrunners, raccoons, opossums, skunks, coyotes, weasels, whipsnakes, kingsnakes, and racers. Young of the smaller crotaline species are frequently killed and eaten by small predatory birds, such as jays, kingfishers, and shrikes.
Some species of ants in the genus Formica are known to prey upon neonates, and Selenosis invite (fire ants) likely do, as well. On occasion, hungry adult rattlesnakes cannibalize neonates. The small proportion (often as few as 20%) of rattlesnakes that make it to their second year are heavily preyed upon by a variety of larger predators, including coyotes, eagles, hawks, owls, falcons, feral pigs, badgers, indigo snakes, and kingsnakes.
Like all pit vipers, rattlesnakes have two organs that can sense radiation; their eyes and a set of heat-sensing “pits” on their faces that enable them to locate prey and move towards it, based on the prey’s thermal radiation signature. These pits have a relatively short effective range of about 1 ft, but give the rattlesnake a distinctive advantage in hunting for warm-blooded creatures at night
Aside from their eyes, rattlesnakes are able to detect thermal radiation emitted by warm-blooded organisms in their environment. Functioning optically like a pinhole camera eye, thermal radiation in the form of infrared light passes through the opening of the pit and strikes the pit membrane located in the back wall, warming this part of the organ. Due to the high density of heat-sensitive receptors innervating this membrane, the rattlesnake can detect temperature changes of 0.003 °C or less in its immediate surroundings.
Rattlesnake eyes, which contain many rod cells, are well adapted to nocturnal use. Rattlesnakes, though, are not exclusively nocturnal, and their vision is more acute during daylight conditions. Rattlesnakes also possess cone cells, which means they are capable of some form of color vision. The rattlesnake eye lacks a fovea, making vision of sharply defined images impossible. Instead, they mostly rely on the perception of movement. Rattlesnake eyes are capable of horizontal rotation, but they do not appear to move their eyeballs to follow moving objects.
Rattlesnakes have an exceptionally keen sense of smell. They can sense olfactory stimuli both through their nostrils and by flicking their tongues, which carry scent-bearing particles to the Jacobson’s organs in the roof of their mouths.
Rattlesnake fangs are connected by venom ducts to large venom glands near the outer edge of the upper jaw, towards the rear of the head. When the rattlesnake bites, muscles on the sides of the venom glands contract to squeeze the venom through the ducts and into the fangs. When the fangs are not in use, they remain folded against the palate.
Rattlesnakes are born with fully functioning fangs and venom, and are capable of killing prey at birth. Adult rattlesnakes shed their fangs every 6–10 weeks. At least three pairs of replacement fangs lie behind the functional pair.
The venom is hemotoxic, destroying tissue, causing necrosis and coagulopathy (disrupted blood clotting). In the U.S., the tiger rattlesnake and some varieties of the Mojave rattlesnake also have a presynaptic neurotoxic venom component known as Mojave type A toxin, which can cause severe paralysis.
Although it has a comparatively low venom yield, the venom toxicity of C. Tigris is considered to be among the highest of all rattlesnake venoms, and among the highest of all snakes in the Western Hemisphere based on LD50 studies conducted on laboratory mice. C. scutulatus is also widely regarded as producing one of the most toxic snake venoms in the Americas, based on LD50 studies in laboratory mice.
Rattlesnake venom is a mixture of five to 15 enzymes, various metal ions, biogenic amines, lipids, free amino acids, proteins, and polypeptides. It contains components evolved to immobilize and disable the prey, as well as digestive enzymes, which break down tissue to prepare for later ingestion. The venom is very stable, and retains its toxicity for many years in storage.
Older snakes possess more potent venom, and larger snakes are frequently capable of storing larger volumes of it.
The rattle serves as a warning for predators of the rattlesnake. The rattle is composed of a series of hollow, interlocked segments made of keratin, which are created by modifying the scales that cover the tip of the tail. The contraction of special “shaker” muscles in the tail causes these segments to vibrate against one another, thus making the rattling noise (which is amplified because the segments are hollow) in a behavior known as tail vibration. The muscles which cause rattling are some of the fastest known, firing 50 times per second on average, sustainable for a duration up to three hours
Most rattlesnake species mate during the summer or fall, while some species mate only in the spring, or during both the spring and fall.
Females secrete small amounts of sex pheromones, which leave a trail the males follow using their tongues and Jacobson’s organs as guides. Once a receptive female has been located, the male often spends several days following her around (a behavior not common outside of the mating season), frequently touching and rubbing her in an attempt to stimulate her.
The males of some species, such as timber rattlesnakes (C. horridus), fight each other during the mating season, in competition over females. These fights, known as “combat dances”, consist of the two males intertwining the anterior portion of their bodies, often with their heads and necks held vertically. The larger males usually end up driving the smaller males away. Females often remain with their young in nests for several weeks, and mothers have been observed co-operatively parenting their broods. Rattlesnakes generally take several years to mature, and females usually reproduce only once every three years.