Venomous snakes are among the most maligned and misunderstood animals on earth.
~In Snakes of the Southeast by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas
In a recent post, I mentioned my first ever encounter with a juvenile Canebrake Rattlesnake while at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to drive through the refuge again, and this time was rewarded with an encounter with a much larger specimen of Crotalus horridus.
This one was a beauty, and big…I am guessing maybe 4 feet or so in length and several inches in girth.. It looked like a tree limb in the road as I approached, but I knew from previous encounters this limb would move when I pulled up in the car and got out.
It immediately made a tight coil and started to rattle – that distinctive sound that would undoubtedly stop me cold if I did not see the snake beforehand. It was a magnificent animal, one of the largest I have ever seen. I think it is a male, based on the length of the tail (the area of the body behind the vent on a snake). The tail of a male rattlesnake is longer and less sharply tapered from the body than that of a female. But, I am no snake sexing expert, so if someone out there knows better, please drop me a note.
I walked around the snake, admiring its robust body, the length of its rattle, the powerful head, and the strongly keeled scales. The snake initially had its head tilted downward with some of the coil raised off the ground, but then dropped its body and tightened the coil, presenting a large, rough-textured lump with penetrating eyes. I quickly put on my 300 mm telephoto lens (no macro shots on this one) and remained at a respectful distance while trying to get a few angles for photographs. Every time I moved, the snake would raise its tail tip and vibrate it, producing that characteristic percussive rattle. When I stopped, the tail would drop, and all was quiet.
I set the camera on a tripod for a quick video hoping to capture the sound, but in my haste to set up and to not keep the snake in the road too long, I didn’t do such a great job, but you can still see it in action. Unfortunately, it was windy, and the snake was several feet from the camera microphone, so the rattling sound is a bit faint. The loud crunching noise is a boot on the gravel each time I took a step.
I wanted the snake to get out of the road (this one was a couple of hundred feet from where I found a roadkill Canebrake Rattlesnake earlier this summer), so I grabbed the camera and backed away. The large rattler slowly stretched its head and neck out toward the roadside vegetation and began to deliberately crawl toward safety. The look of power and striking angles on the head of these big rattlesnakes is just so impressive.
I noticed as it crawled that it carried its tail tip high off the ground, unlike most snakes. This is probably an adaptation to preserving the delicate segments that form the rattle. The tissue making up the rattle is akin to a thin brittle fingernail. And, just like we can break our nails, a rattlesnake can break off segments of its rattle. A newborn rattlesnake has a rounded button at the tail tip. Each time the rattlesnake sheds its skin (probably one to three times per year on average depending on food availability and health of the snake) it adds a new segment to its rattle. If the rattle ends in a smooth button, it is complete, and has not been broken off. If it ends in a squarish or tiered piece (like this one where you see what look like pointy projections off to each side), it has been broken and some segments are missing. This, coupled with the fact they produce a segment each time they shed, is why you cannot accurately age a rattlesnake by the number of rattles. Their trademark sound is made by the segments knocking against one another as the snake rapidly vibrates its tail. The many interlocking connections of the segments, plus the hollow spaces between them, help amplify the sound. But, whenever you are in rattlesnake habitat, be sure to keep both your eyes and ears open, as not every rattler will rattle if you accidentally get too close too quickly. Luckily, they are usually just trying to get out of harms way if given a chance. Populations of these impressive creatures are dwindling almost everywhere they occur, so please watch out for them, and educate yourself and others about the important role they play in our environment.