A Seriously Annoyed Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
A change of pace from birds today, with a post about one of the last two dangerous snakes found in central Florida. The last two species, that is, not the actual last TWO. I've done previous posts on the eastern coral snake and the water moccasin, and today, I want to talk about the Big Guy--the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Next week, I'll deal with the Little Guy, the dusky pygmy rattlesnake. In the panhandle area, you can find timber rattlesnakes (a/k/a canebrake rattlesnakes) and copperheads, but we don't have them here. However, of the two we have left to talk about, one holds the distinction of being the largest rattlesnake the United States, and the other is the one with the most bites attributed to it. Since they are both snakes you want to avoid cornering or stepping on, I'd like to show you how to recognize them. You'll want to give them a plenty of space if you spot them in the wild, and call for a professional to remove them if you spot them in your yard or (gasp) house. So without further ado, let's get started on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
First, let me begin with a question that's at the heart of all information about central Florida's dangerous snakes:
What do you think? Five? Six? Four?
Well, here's the answer:
Assuming you haven't looked ahead, you are probably frowning in confusion, muttering something like, "That can't be right."
But it IS right. And here's why.
Now I KNOW you are doubting me, but would I lie to you? Nope!
This may be all about semantics, but it's important.
The truth is, snakes are not poisonous.
They are venomous.
There's a big difference between the two things,
and here's a little graphic to help you remember which is which.
Take a look at the image on the left.
If YOU bite IT and get sick or die, it's POISONOUS.
Now look at the image on the right.
If IT bites YOU and you get sick or die, it's VENOMOUS.
Poison is INGESTED, usually by mouth or by breathing.
For instance, some mushrooms are poisonous if eaten,
and toxic gas is poisonous if breathed.
Venom is INJECTED via fangs or stingers.
For instance, snake bites, scorpion stings, bee stings, and so forth.
Therefore, since snakes can be eaten with no problem,
they are not poisonous.
But since their bite can make you very sick or even kill you,
they ARE venomous.
Now, keeping our original question in mind,
though modifying it somewhat,
how many VENOMOUS snakes are there in central Florida?
The correct answer is FOUR. Voila!
Class is over for the day, and we now resume our regularly scheduled program.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake in Typical Threat Mode
The first thing I'd like to say about rattlesnakes (and, indeed, ALL snakes, venomous or not) is that they really do NOT want to have to bite you. It is a defense, and one they hate to use. Venomous snakes don't like to expend venom on anything they can't eat, and no matter how tiny their reptilian brain might be, they are smart enough to know they usually can't eat a human being. They NEED to conserve venom for hunting their normal prey, in this case mice, rats, rabbits, birds, and other small animals, insects, and amphibians.
A rattlesnake's venom sacs are located in the cheek area, and get this: all venomous snakes have complete control over exactly how much venom they inject into any animal, humans included. They adjust the amount of venom they inject, probably based on the size of the prey animal, and can use a full load, or any portion thereof. Where defense is concerned, they can even give what is called a "dry bite," with no venom injected at all. In fact, 20% to 25% of all snake bites turn out to be dry bites. (This does not mean you don't need immediate emergency treatment if bitten by a venomous snake. Just that you may not be in as much danger as you fear.) Dry bites can be the result of a snake's venom sacs already being empty, or simply that the snake was just trying to warn you away. But the only way to know if you've been injected with venom or not is by seeking medical help.
Snakes are stingy! It takes time to replace venom. Consequently, they will often do their best to warn you off with hissing, striking motions, rattling of their tail, and anything else to make themselves look dangerous and make you run away. When you spot a rattlesnake anywhere, any time, it is usually best to slowly back away and let the snake go about his own business. It will NOT chase you, no matter what anyone says. It will go in the opposite direction as soon as it figures out it's safe to make its escape. Unless, of course, you have cornered it and are standing in its way. I recommend you do not do that. Back off and let the snake depart. The vast majority of all snakebites occur when people are 1) trying to catch the snake, or 2) trying kill it. Don't try to do either. You are not as fast as they are, and would be putting yourself in danger.
So, we've established that snakes don't want to bite you, and you should let them go on their way when you encounter them. We are going to talk more about venom in a bit, but first, I want to show you how to recognize a diamondback rattlesnake at first glance.
Here's a hint. It has diamonds. On its back. Hence, the name.
As you can see in this picture, the diamond pattern starts directly behind the snake's head and continues well down onto the tail area. This pattern is visible from the moment the babies arrive, and throughout the snake's life. And it is the ONLY snake in Florida (or any other eastern state that I'm aware of) with this pattern. Unlike the water moccasin, it doesn't lose the pattern as it ages. The diamonds are darkish and set off by cream-colored borders, and very, very visible. You can hardly miss them.
They also have rattles. Sometimes. But rattles are small, loose sections composed of keratin, similar to the material your fingernails are made of. Like your fingernails, they are easily broken. No matter how hard a rattlesnake tries to rattle at you, if the "buttons" on its tail are damaged too badly or missing completely, it won't make much, if any, noise. So you need to be able to tell by sight alone.
This is a great close up of the buttons that make up a rattlesnake's rattle. This guy has a LOT of them. He'd make plenty of noise shaking them at you, and if you've ever seen any old western movie, you know just what they sound like. If you are lucky enough to hear the rattling, heed the snake's warning, and step away!
Snake in the Grass . . . erm . . . Palmettos.
Diamondbacks love high, dry land, and are commonly found in areas with heavy growths of palmettos. (NEVER stick your hand under these plants unless you can see exactly what you are doing. That's a good way to get bitten.) And the loss of this high, dry land to developers greatly impacts the diamondback population. Humans have a habit of displacing native species when they begin picking out places for their own homes. Consequently, some of these displaced animals show up in backyards, and that often results in a face-off that can be unhealthy for animals and people alike.
The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest venomous snake in all of North America! It can attain lengths of eight feet or more, though specimens that big are rarely seen these days. Adults are usually in the 3' to 5' range, and believe me, that's plenty big enough. They are heavy-bodied (read "fat") snakes, and the bigger they are, the bigger their venom sacs. WARNING: The man above is a professional who removes snakes and other wildlife from urban yards. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME! I'm serious here. I think you can see just how heavy this particular rattlesnake is, and he would pack a very mean bite if cornered. However, if you notice, his distinctive diamond pattern is very visible, making identification easy.
Baby Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
The nice thing about diamondbacks is they do not change their pattern at all, as they age. Baby rattlesnakes are born looking exactly like adults. Just smaller. They are also born fully equipped with venom and ready to bite, so don't think you can handle them safely. No, they won't have as much venom to inject, but the venom is hemotoxic, which means it attacks blood and tissue. The bites are extremely painful and often become necrotic as the venom eats away at tissue. That means STAY AWAY FROM THE LITTLE GUYS, TOO.
And while we're on the subject of these babies, rattlesnakes and all pit vipers, unlike most snakes, do not lay eggs, but give birth to live, wiggly little babies. However, it doesn't happen the way it does with mammals. The babies still come from actual eggs, but those eggs hatch inside the mother, instead of in a burrow or under a rock. Then she births the babies, which are immediately ready to go. This is an added advantage for rattlers, because many predators will eat snake eggs if they can find them. Since these eggs are being incubated inside the mother rattlesnake, it would not be an easy meal.
Diamondbacks are excellent swimmers, and unlike most nonvenomous snakes,
tend to swim on the surface of the water.
Before I wrap this up, I mentioned "pit vipers" above, and want to show you exactly what that means. To make it easier for you to see, I'm using a photo of a beautiful leucistic diamondback rattler, a snake even whiter than an albino, and with crystal blue eyes.
Life Can Be The Pits, When You're a Viper!
This lovely shot clearly shows the details of a pit viper's head. First and easiest to recognize, is the snake's eye. In this case, it's a beautiful shade of blue which is one way you know this isn't an albino snake, since their eyes are pink to red. Directly in front of the eye, you see a pinkish opening, which is the nostril. Yeah, snakes gotta breathe, too. And between the nostril and the eye, but slightly lower than both, is a darker opening. This is the pit. And a very interesting thing it is, too. It functions very much like infrared photography, enabling the snake to see actual images at night, when it is most active. They used to think it just gave clues to whether it was near a warm-blooded animal or not, but more recent information has revealed that the snake can actually see the form, shape, and size of the animal. This enables it to see if it's tracking a tiny mouse, a larger rabbit, or a six-foot tall man. And this is critical, because as I mentioned earlier, it only wants to inject venom into something it can eat. If given a choice, it will avoid the man, in favor of the mouse or rabbit.
Three of our venomous snakes in central Florida are pit vipers: the diamondback, as we've been discussing, the dusky pygmy rattlesnake, which we'll be talking about next week, and the water moccasin, which I posted about here: https://stjohnsriverecotours.com/index.php/blog/notesfromtheriver-cottonmouth The 4th is the eastern coral snake, which is an elapid, and a very different type of snake. You can read about coral snakes here: https://stjohnsriverecotours.com/index.php/blog/notesfromtheriver-eastern-coral-snake
That's Either a Very Tiny Alligator or the Biggest Rattlesnake on the Planet!
I do believe I'll end on this photo, because, how can I top it? Hope you enjoyed learning a bit about the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Join me next week for the last of central Florida's VENOMOUS snakes, the dusky pygmy rattler. It's a very interesting little guy, and even though it packs less venom, you definitely need to stay out of its way.