Tuesday, July 21, 2009

About That Giant Dead Rattlesnake E-mail You Got...



If you are here because you received an e-mail about a giant dead rattlesnake, you have come to the right place. You can also follow me on TwitterWant to stay updated on giant rattlesnake e-mails? Subscribe here.

I probably discuss the picture you have received below. If not, send it to me.

My original column regarding commonly circulated rattlesnake pictures is below the addendums, which I add as I am made aware of additional photographs.  Want to see rattlesnakes in their natural habitat instead of dead in a driveway?  Click here. If you're here because you received the picture on the right with some text about pigs or feral hogs influencing rattling behavior, you need to read this.

Let's make something clear right off the bat.  There are no ten foot rattlesnakes...There are no eleven foot rattlesnakes.  There are no fourteen foot rattlesnakes. They don't exist.  Period. Want to know why I feel confident saying these things? Check out my FAQ. If an eight foot rattlesnake is found, there needs to be compelling proof presented because it is one of the top two or three biggest rattlesnakes ever found in the history of humans or rattlesnakes. I am afraid I cannot accept snake skins as evidence of giant snakes because it has been established that they stretch when removed from the snake, whether the stretching was purposeful or not. For a great description of this phenomenon, check out this link.


Many of these pictures use the same camera tricks, specifically it's called "forced perspective".  By positioning one object closer to the camera than another object that we can use for size reference, our sense of scale can be limited.  Don't think that's a big deal?  Check out these photographs I found online, or this video.



By reading the whole column below, you can learn relevant natural history information (including maximum known sizes) for various snake species.  If you're sent a picture of a "giant" dead rattlesnake and it's not included here, please bring it to my attention.  


Demonstration photos courtesy of Mark Pyle
Okay, on to the rattlesnakes:

11/5/14 Addendum

Long time no snake pic!


"Supposedly killed in Roma, Tx."

"Fwd: 13.5 foot South Texas rattlesnake - Yikes !!! Next door to Dave Rogers Ranch in Hidalgo County"

"13.5 foot South Texas rattlesnake - Yikes !!! This is not the kind of snake you want to challenge. 13 1/2 feet long."

I received three different e-mails about this rattlesnake back in September but I just never got around to posting about it. Apparently it is now getting a lot of attention on Reddit accompanied by the following information:

"Giant Rattlesnake killed at my grandparents ranch in Mexico".

This picture and the accompanying information have all the trademarks of a Giant Rattlesnake Hoax (should I copyright that?):

1. Multiple versions of the photograph exist claiming the snake is from various locations.

Roma Texas is in Starr County, not Hidalgo County (although both are in south Texas). And obviously Mexico is not in Texas at all.

2. The snake is held on a long pole facing the camera to make it appear longer than it really is, a camera trick I explain above.

3. The snake in the picture is claimed to be larger than any rattlesnake than has ever been measured in the history of the world/rattlesnakes.

For what it's worth, the snake in the picture looks to be a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox. This species does occur in southern Texas and Mexico, but the largest ever found was around seven feet long. That's about half the size of the imaginary number attached to the photo. Don't believe it.

So, in conclusion we can confidently conclude that the information associated with this picture is bogus without even examining whether the photo was altered in any way. 


4/29/14 Addendum


    Perhaps you've seen the latest picture of a dead (and supposedly giant) rattlesnake. I sure have, four different people have sent it to me. The location changed each time I got the picture; this is a pretty good way to know that the picture has gone viral and lost some facts along the way. 

    In any case, let's assume that the picture was taken in Texas (at least all the e-mails I received had that in common). The snake is a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, and they are found throughout much of the state. Western Diamondbacks are not a rare species and they are frequently killed by people. 

   Everything checks out so far. But...

   Why would anyone in the world think that this snake is nine and a half feet long? The snake is being held on a long pole towards the camera. That makes the snake look larger than it really is. Furthermore, that the man is standing on the back of a truck enhances the illusion that this is some kind of big snake, but it's not as if the snake hits the ground, it's just hanging in the air.

   A nine and a half foot Western Diamondback would be much larger than the largest Western Diamondback ever documented. Don't believe the hype-this snake is closer to half that size.


7/6/13 Addendum



GM FB fam...Welcome 2 Bladen Co. N.C. This is not a Python nor a Boa this is a 24ft Rattlesnake...Holy $h*t!!

    There are so many things wrong with this it is hard to know where to start.

   1) Rattlesnakes do not get 24 feet long. No rattlesnake of any species that has ever been measured has been that big. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find reliable evidence of rattlesnakes over eight feet long (although a handful have been recorded). Once you start talking about rattlesnakes over nine feet long you might as well be talking about Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

  2) That's not a rattlesnake. Based on the color and body shape and patterning it is definitely a python; I believe it is a Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus; please correct me below if you disagree). This species can be found in southeast Asia, not southeast North Carolina. You may be reminded of this post from a few years ago in which another python is hoisted up by some construction equipment and claimed to be a 55 foot boa.

  3) This snake is unlikely to be 24 feet long. It is a lot closer to the camera than the back-hoe so our perception of size is skewed. My guess is the snake is 10-12 feet long. Still a big snake.

   4) Bladen County, North Carolina isn't exactly ground-zero for giant rattlesnakes. The world's largest species of rattlesnake (up to about eight feet long), the Eastern Diamond-back Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus), is known from North Carolina (see range map); historically they occurred in the coastal regions. But, today they are extremely rare and most (all?) of the snakes that are left in the state are on Camp Lejeune, the Marine base. Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), however, can be found throughout most of North Carolina, except perhaps the central region. And, this species very rarely exceed six feet in length.

Conclusion: the story about this photograph is very bogus.

1/16/13 Addendum

"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." -Michael Corleone

Sometimes I daydream that the myth of the giant dead rattlesnake has finally been put to rest. I imagine that inboxes will no longer be invaded by dead rattlesnakes with lengths and weights exaggerated to scare the bejesus out of people. But then I check my e-mail.

The latest picture to be doing the rounds was brought to my attention by a comment left by by Amy R on this blog. She notes that the snake on the right was allegedly killed in Mississippi. Then, Pat B. sent me an e-mail and told me the story takes place outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Both said they heard the snake was eight and a half feet (2.6 meters) long (Amy R. also noted the snake allegedly had 21 rattles).

Where do we start? I'll start by saying that those lengths are bogus and the locations are...unlikely.

The snake in the picture is an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus. This is apparent because of the black and gold diamond-patterning and, of course, the rattle. This species does not reach eight and a half feet long. That would be the world's largest rattlesnake ever known to science. I don't believe this is the world's largest rattlesnake ever known because it is clearly an animal that is approximately half that size and thrust toward the camera on a long piece of wood. It's a rattlesnake camera trick I explain several times above and below.

The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake was once found in eastern Louisiana but is now nearly gone (if not completely). Information available online suggests the species hasn't been found in the state since 1995 but I believe these websites haven't been updated recently because I think one was found a couple years ago. In any case, Baton Rouge is nearly outside even the historic range of the Eastern Diamondback (range map). So, it is very difficult to believe the picture was recently taken in this state. I've noticed that a number of people that reach this blog are Googling "Coyell, Louisiana Rattlesnake" do they actually mean Colyell? Perhaps that is another potential location for this animal.

In Mississippi, the story isn't much better. Eastern Diamondbacks once ranged throughout the southeastern and central portion of the state (range map again). But they are increasingly rare in that area.

The caption for the Facebook photo that has been shared over 5,000 times (visible through Amy R.'s comment) states the snake was killed in "Green County". There is no Green County in either Louisiana or Mississippi. Is it possible that the snake was killed in Greene County? Greene County, Mississippi could possibly contain Eastern Diamondbacks but, as I mention above, they are extremely rare there. Greene County, Alabama is outside the range of the Eastern Diamondback. Update 1/16/13 0851, Melissa M. writes to me and notes she heard the snake was from "Green County, Georgia" Well, there is no Green County in Georgia. Greene County, on the other hand, is well outside the range of the Eastern Diamondback. Update 2/3/13, Cowper C. says the location associated with this snake is now Pangburn, Arkansas. We immediately know this is false because although Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Crotalus atrox, can be found in Arkansas, Eastern Diamondbacks do not occur there, and that is an Eastern in the picture. Cowper also notes that Spanish moss, evident in the back of the picture, is unlikely to be found in Arkansas. Update 2/4/13, Thanks to KARK for trying to set the record straight

Conclusion: The length of this snake is definitely made-up and multiple (and improbable) locations point to a hoax.

Update 3/7/13, so many additional stories and locations about this snake have popped up that I stopped bothering to update the post, but recently many have claimed the snake was from Texas. In any case, it looks like the real story has finally surfaced: the snake is from Levy County, Florida and is claimed as 6'9" and 15 lbsA rattlesnake that big would be very large but Eastern Diamondbacks can reach that length. However, it doesn't look that long in the picture.

Update 5/2/13: OK-one more update, the picture is circulating with this story a lot, so I'm obliged to note that it's not true either: "Pat Long and his son in a blind to hunt hogs near Midway when this guy poked his head in! Pat's son shot the snake... it's 9'6" long... with 22 rattles, the head more than five inches wide, the fangs 2.5" long. Anybody going for a walk in the woods this weekend? Share with your friends and see who has good snake stories!" Bogus.

9/29/12 Addendum



For the full summary of this photo, visit this blog post.







In short, my verdict is that this is a real photo of a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake eating a cottontail. It looks large because of standard camera tricks that you should all be familiar with but it's likely about five feet long (1.5 meters), based on my best guess.


8/23/12 Addendum


In the last few days a couple readers have sent me the picture on the right, in which a large and dead rattlesnake is displayed. So far, the text that has accompanied this picture has claimed the rattlesnake was killed in either Poteau Mountain, Arkansas or Olla, Louisiana. Although the location may change, the size of the snake is apparently being consistently reported as 11 feet 4 inches and 59 pounds (with 28 rattles). 

Let's start with what we know. The color and patterning of the snake give it away as a Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus. This species is found throughout the eastern and central United States. Both Poteau Mountain (located within Ouachita National Forest) and Olla, Louisiana are within the natural range of this species (although Olla is borderline). Therefore, we can't rule out either of these potentials as the true location of the snake. However, check out the license plate on the truck. It seems as though there is a blue line at the top, which reminded me of Pennsylvania (or perhaps South Carolina?). Although the license plate looks like it's from Pennsylvania, I don't think that this is where the picture was taken. The pine trees in the background as well as the look of the snake make me think the photograph was taken in the southeastern United States. Timber Rattlesnakes do occur in Pennsylvania, but most specimens that I've seen from the Northeast U.S. are darker or even yellow and not dominated by a tan color like the snake in this picture. Perhaps someone has a copy of this photograph with better resolution and can zoom in on the license plate.

So, we are unsure where the picture was taken. Let's evaluate the stated size of the animal. Eleven-feet long is roughly twice the size of what would be considered a huge Timber Rattlesnake. No Timber Rattlesnake ever recorded has come close to this length (and I'm confident that none ever will). A seven-foot Timber Rattlesnake is nearly unfathomable. An eleven-foot rattlesnake is completely unfathomable. It's not that long. Don't believe it.

Why does it look so big then? Because the snake is hoisted onto a large branch that is shoved towards the camera. Although the snake looks relatively large compared to the man, the man is actually much farther away from the camera than the snake. It's an old trick called forced perspective that I explain above and show many examples of below.

The last bit of "information" about this animal is that it has 28 rattles. A rattlesnakes add a new rattle every time it sheds its skin (not necessarily once every year), and it's likely an adult rattlesnake has shed more than 28 times over the course of its life. So, it's possible that a rattlesnake could have 28 rattles. However, this would be extremely unusual because they break easily and a rattle with 28 segments would be very precarious and fragile. It certainly doesn't have 28 rattles in the picture. The resolution is too poor though, for me to see if the rattle has been hacked off for a souvenir. It doesn't look like it.

My guess as to the real size of the rattlesnake is about four-feet (1.2 m) long and roughly 4.5 pounds (2 kilograms).

11/17/10 Addendum

Thanks to an alert reader for forwarding the following picture (on right). The photo was accompanied by this text:

"Rattlesnake (Raystown Lake) About 80 miles from Lock Haven, PA. This snake was killed on the east side of the Raystown Dam about 7 miles south of Huntingdon.  The land owner is a neighbor of one of my colleagues at work. This is a photo taken by my neighbor.  He shot this rattler - twice with a 20 gauge - under his back porch.  It was coiled up there and got agitated when he found it.  He figured it was after his two Pekineses dogs.
He says it weighed 64 pounds and was 11 1/2 feet long.  It had 10 rattles.
I didn't know they got this big!  And I sure hope I don't find any like this one around my house!!"

OK, we already know this is a bogus e-mail because no rattlesnake known to mankind has ever reached 11 1/2 feet long.  In fact, Timber Rattlesnakes (the species in the picture, identified by the light brown base color and chevron patterning) are unlikely to ever reach half that size.  The surprised exclamation by the author of the e-mail is right on when they note they didn't know that, "they got this big". They don't.

Please tell me you weren't fooled by the ancient trick of holding the subject closer to the camera.  It looks like this dude is holding the snake up by a rake handle (or equivalent).  Timber rattlesnakes do occur in Pennsylvania, so it's possible the location is correct, but I know of no way of verifying this information.  A large prey item for a Timber Rattlesnake would be a grey squirrel, so I don't think dog owners should spend much time worrying about their pets being eaten, but of course they should use caution while in rattlesnake country.

Timber Rattlesnakes are increasingly rare in the northeastern United States due to habitat loss and killing of the snakes near their dens.  They are still encountered somewhat often in Pennsylvania, but populations are likely declining.  The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources recommends contacting them to handle venomous snakes rather than removing (or blasting it away with a shotgun) yourself.

8/12/10 Addendum


A reader in Louisiana provided me with the picture on the right, which was accompanied by the following text:


"If I saw one like this I would still be running! Might want to be careful the next time you are out in the woods. Rattlesnake from Alabama."


There isn't a lot of information to work with on this picture.  The animal in the picture is a timber rattlesnake, you can confidently identify this species by the tan body color covered in dark chevrons.  Timbers do range throughout most of Alabama.  It looks to be a healthy snake and I'd say it's two to three feet long.  Hoisting the snake onto a broom handle and holding it towards the camera makes it appear much larger.  But, this snake is well below the maximum known length for the species, which seldom get larger than five feet.


8/3/10 Addendum


Well, it's been nearly a year since a new picture of a giant dead rattlesnake started doing the rounds...But it looks like Batesville, Arkansas is joining the club...I recently became aware of a number of hits to this blog based on keywords suggesting a new tale was circulating. A quick Google search brought the following picture to my attention.


The snake is claimed to be 14 feet and nine inches long and weigh 100 pounds.  If you spend a few minutes reading the text below, I believe you'll be quickly convinced this is a completely bogus claim.  No rattlesnake has ever and no rattlesnake will ever reach that length or weight.  But, there's another reason we can confidently claim the story is a hoax.  The snake is an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, that's clear from the distinctive patterning (black diamonds surrounded by gold), and this species does not come close to living in Arkansas, you can see a great range map here.  If you're curious how a snake can be made to look larger than it really is, I've explained that technique below.  I've also been made aware of this picture circulating with a version of the story stating Powell, Alabama was the location.  Although eastern diamondbacks can be found in Alabama, they are only in the southern extreme of the state, not anywhere close to Powell (in the northeastern corner of Alabama).


It's now 8/10/10 and I've received several additional e-mails about the above snake and a larger photograph.  One e-mail states:


"Rattle snake killed in Statesboro. Had 19 rattles and a button and  measured 8 feet 4 inches. Has not been officialy measured by the DNR but if the measurements are correct it will be the new United States record for rattle snake!...That son of a gun is huge!!!"


Well, they're right about two things: this snake has not been officially measured by the (GA) Department of Natural Resources and if the snake were 8 feet and 4 inches it would be a record.  Right off the bat we should be skeptical.  Let's examine the claim this snake had 19 rattles.

This snake clearly does not have 19 rattles so I think we can be reasonably confident in dismissing this version of the story.  We have to be open to the possibility the rattle was cut off before the picture was taken, it is common after all, to take them as souvenirs.   But, the claimed size as well as the multiple versions of this e-mail suggest we have yet to learn the real story of this large dead rattlesnake.




I've also been sent this picture with the following text:

"First-season dove hunters might want to watch their step and wear snake boots or chaps! This is not a "doctored" photograph. This rattlesnake was killed right on the edge of our hunting club outside Ridgeland, SC on Wednesday July 28th. 9.7 ft long and over 100 lbs...confirmed."

Now a closer look

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes do occur in South Carolina, but we can easily dismiss this bogus claim based on the outrageous length and weight claimed for this specimen.  Rattlesnakes don't get this big or weigh this much. Period.  I discuss this below.  Who confirmed the size of this animal? Nobody. 



 8/26/10  It looks like the real story with this snake is here.  In short, the snake was killed in Cooperville, Georgia in July 2010 and measured six feet and six inches long.  A huge rattler but within the known range for this species. 


9/8/10 This rattlesnake just made it big and was featured on this TV segment from Charleston, SC.  They used this blog to research the story and you can see it passages of text from right here for about 0.3 seconds

2/23/11 This picture sure has legs; it's cropped up in Ontario, Canada. The text in the e-mail now states, "The farm where this big rattler was killed is outside Wiarton which is located in Ontario". Even if we didn't already know the true story of this rattlesnake (above), we can quickly dismiss this e-mail as false because the snake in the picture is an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which do not range north of North Carolina, let alone anywhere in Canada. Although there are massasaugas (another species or rattlesnake) around Wiarton, these animals are typically rather small (less than two feet) and very rare.  Finding 57 of them (as the e-mail states) is very unlikely. You can read about this threatened species here. If you ever see one, congratulations are in order because they are one of the rarest animals in Ontario. From what I can determine online, only two people have ever died from a massasauga bite, and those both occurred over forty years ago. If you see this rare snake, don't try to catch or kill it and you'll have very little to worry about.
     The e-mail also contains some text from a completely different 'viral e-mail' describing a rumor about how wild pigs may be influencing whether a rattlesnake rattles or not (I tackle this issue here).


9/30/09 Addendum


St. Augustine, Florida: welcome to the discussion. One of my attentive readers from this city sent me this article about a giant dead eastern diamondback rattlesnake that was killed in Tuscany Village Townhomes. I was also provided the below photographs.


This newspaper article, and others like it, are a little different than some of the pictures that circulate online. They do not intend to deceive, they simply fall prey to what is apparently human nature: the tendency to exaggerate the size of snakes. When there is a picture involved it is sometimes difficult to determine the extent that camera tricks play a role in distorting the apparent size of dead snakes. However, in this case the rattlesnake is much closer to the camera than anything else appearing in the picture that it might be compared to for scale.


The resident who called police about the snake stated that it was six feet long. That would be a very big snake but not outside the realm of possibility. But when a spokesman from the police department saw the pictures suddenly it was estimated to be "at least 10 feet", potentially making it the largest rattlesnake in the world...by two feet!


Unfortunately, no measurements were taken (a familiar story) and the trapper that killed the snake disappeared without leaving his contact information. Perhaps we will eventually find out how big this snake was (if someone measures it) but until then it's just another big, old snake that was killed. Ten feet? No. Eight feet? Exceedingly unlikely would be an understatement.


Update 8:29 PM: Apparently the trapper that dispatched the snake was found and updated news articles state the snake was measured to be seven feet and three inches long. This is a huge, huge....huge snake, but not impossible as the species can theoretically reach this length. The trapper also stated that the snake has shrank since he put it in his freezer, so I doubt the length will ever be authenticated. One article also quoted him as saying that rattlesnakes travel in pairs, so it's likely there is another snake in the area. This is an old-wives' tale but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and suggest maybe he was misquoted when explaining that this time of year (i.e. the fall) is their breeding season


Update 3/27/10
It took a few months, but the pictures of the St. Augustine snake have been turned into one of the viral e-mails that we are all familiar with and that include bogus information. The e-mail I received is entitled,
"Florida is full of surprises" and does get the location correct but adds a number of fabricated "facts" about the snake, including that it was 15 feet long, it could swallow a 2 year old child, it weighs 170 lbs, etc. etc. We know this information is false.



9/28/09 Addendum


Here's another giant dead snake that's not a rattlesnake, although it is venomous.


The text associated with this picture suggests this snake is an eight foot long and thirty pound "moccasin" killed on the road to a fish hatchery in Cordele, Georgia. If by moccasin, they mean cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscivorus, then they're correct. But, like so many other dead snake pictures, the size of the snake is grossly exaggerated. Cottonmouths do not reach eight feet long. A six footer would be a massive individual and snakes this large are extremely rare. If a hypothetical cottonmouth were to reach eight feet long it wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest that it weighed thirty pounds. In that sense the weight isn't as ridiculous as many figures given for dead rattlesnakes (below), but the take-home message is that cottonmouths don't get that big anyway.


There really is a fish hatchery in Cordele, Georgia and it is likely that cottonmouths, which eat fish, can fatten up in these areas; however, the stated size of this snake is larger than any cottonmouth that ever existed. So, why does it look so huge? The same simple camera trick that we've seen so many times already (described below ad nauseum).


If you look on the bottom right of the photograph, you can see the tail of another cottonmouth, also likely dead. Nothing like an afternoon of killing snakes to pass the time.


I spend a lot of time in wetlands while I'm looking for water snakes or trapping turtles. Of the many cottonmouths I've encountered, all have either depended on their camouflage to avoid a conflict or made me aware of their presence by flashing their namesake white mouth or by thrashing the vegetation as they tried to get away from me as quickly as possible. I have to work right alongside these animals and can't imagine why I would ever need to kill one (or two or three).


8/13/09 Addendum


Well, the "giant rattlesnake" picture from Manor, Texas was so popular that I hesitate to bump it, but we've got another one doing the rounds.

The version I was supplied suggested that this "timber rattlesnake" was killed outside Stuttgart, Arkansas. Perhaps you received the e-mail with the subject: "Stuttgart Arkansas Snake - killed in his front yard". First off, we know that by holding the snake so close to the camera, it appears larger than it really is. Second, it's not a rattlesnake! Notice how the picture conveniently cuts off the snake's tail? This is actually a diamondback water snake, Nerodia rhombifer.
They're often mistaken for cottonmouths, but diamondback water snakes are harmless fish-eaters (but they may give you a bite if you try to catch one). These snakes can be found primarily in the Mississippi River valley but also range into bordering states and Mexico. You can learn more about distinguishing water snakes from venomous snakes here.


7/29/09 Addendum

This picture started circulating today and claims that this snake was just killed in Austin, ShadowGlen, or Manor, Texas. Although there was a snake killed there, it was not seven feet long (8/5 edit, a reader has pointed out that I do not know this for a fact because I was not there--comments section). Other pictures of this snake show it is much smaller. Holding the snake close to the picture makes it look larger (tricks described below). The maximum size of this species is also discussed below; if the snake were indeed seven feet long, it would be one of the largest of the species (western diamondback, Crotalus atrox) ever found. Some skepticism is warranted, especially since other reports indicate that the snake was five feet long (a generous estimate considering how big the snake looks in all other pictures).


Conclusion: This picture is like so many others of supposedly giant rattlesnakes. The size is exaggerated by the snake being closer to the camera than the man holding it (as well as by sensationalistic text). One thing is undeniable though, it's definitely a dead snake.


9/21/09 Addendum: This is the snake rumor that just won't die. To put the issue to rest, I've embedded the video that accompanied the news story. (Edit 7/18/12-this video has since been removed).

Look at the pictures of the snake at 43 seconds, 1:07 minutes, and 1:43 minutes. This snake is clearly and obviously not seven feet long. It's unequivocal. In addition, both reporters note that the snake is five feet long (a much more reasonable suggestion). Let's move on.


7/24/09 Addendum


As expected, additional photos of giant rattlesnakes killed in your town have been brought to my attention. So, I include them here. Feel free to keep sending them.

If you read my blog below, you already know what I'm going to say. The snake on the right is a western diamondback rattlesnake (raccoon tail). Rest assured it wasn't just killed in your backyard, this picture has been circulating for a while. Maybe when you received it the text indicated it was an 89 pound rattlesnake found by dove hunters near Oktaha, outside of Muskogee and just north of Checotah.


This snake is probably about few feet long (definitely not nearly eight feet as the e-mail I received suggested; it looks bigger because it's been impaled by some sort of pole and thrust towards the camera), and still alive; the snake is not at all limp. This is a hefty animal, maybe even a pregnant female. Good job! (Sarcasm).


Recently this picture (on right) has been circulated in e-mails and forum threads claiming it is a diamondback rattlesnake (11 feet long, no less) killed in Odessa, Texas. Where do we start at this one? I can't decide which is more audacious, the claim that this is an 11 foot rattlesnake (we already know they don't get nearly that large) or that this is a rattlesnake at all! I think I'll go with the latter, because this is a python. Although some southeastern states (i.e. Florida) have problems with introduced populations of pythons, this is likely a photo taken in Africa, where they are native. 9/21/09 Edit: This is a misleading sentence, as a reader has pointed out. Although Africa is the snake's native range, the vegetation is consistent with that of West Texas. It's not unreasonable to suggest that the picture was indeed taken there. Side note: if you're afraid of 11 foot rattlesnakes, don't wear sandals like this guy.


8/5/09 Addendum


Well, we've got another one.

This is not a new picture but I only recently became aware of it. Next time it starts running through e-mail you can rest assured that this is old news. By the looks of all the pictures I come across, posing with western diamondback rattlesnakes seems to be a fairly popular hobby. There are so many similar pictures that I'm running out of ways to creatively say that this is an average-sized snake that looks larger than it is because it is closer to the camera than the people holding it aloft. Relevant natural history, including maximum known size of this species, is discussed below.






ORIGINAL COLUMN



Recognize any of these pictures?


Since I recently posted a blog about a giant dead rattlesnake picture that was circulating through e-mail, I’ve received dozens, if not hundreds, of visitors that reached my site by googling keyword combinations such as, “giant rattlesnake killed Alabama, 97 pound rattlesnake Georgia, 97 pound dead eastern diamondback” etc. This is clearly a topic that has interested many, many people and this blog may be an opportunity to examine some of the other common dead snake pictures that tend to emerge every other year or so. The locations tend to change each time I receive them (recently, the most common iteration stated the giant snake was from Enterprise, Alabama). Perhaps it will be your town next year. If that’s the case, you’ll be able to refer your horrified neighbors to this site before they descend upon the local zoos and nature centers with pitchforks.


I’ve included only the pictures I’ve received or found on the internet. Please feel free to let me know if I’ve left some out.


In most of these pictures, these snakes are genuinely large. In that sense, they are not a hoax. Many large rattlesnakes still prowl through southeastern forests (although likely not as big or as many as in the past). However, as I note below, the size is always exaggerated and posed to look as big and menacing as possible.



I’ve already discussed this picture here. In short, this is Crotalus atrox, a western diamondback rattlesnake (not an eastern, Crotalus adamanteus) made to look impressively large by holding it much closer to the camera than the man. The tongs holding up the snake are likely three to four feet long. Most often, this snake is suggested to be 97 pounds and span over nine feet. That’s a lot of weight for this Arnold Schwarzenegger wannabe to be holding aloft.


Eastern diamondbacks seldom reach seven feet long. Two specimens observed by seemingly reliable sources were reported to be over eight feet long but this length is considered questionable because the snakes weren’t preserved. Rewards offered for eight foot specimens have long gone unclaimed. Of the roughly 150 eastern diamondbacks I’ve seen (most of which were in a relatively protected area), a five foot snake would be considered a monster. None approached ten pounds, let alone 97.


7/23/09 Edit: At the suggestion of Paul Hurtado, I provide a link here to show what an 80 pound snake really looks like, in this case it's a fourteen foot long Burmese python.


Although we’ve all seen some huge snake skins, they can be stretched to some extent after death so their length is not a reliable way to determine how large a snake was in life.


Western diamondback rattlesnakes are typically smaller than easterns. Although at least one specimen over seven feet has been reported, this species typically maxes out at about five feet. (Sentence edited for clarity on 9/21/09) Perhaps this is roughly how large the snake in the picture is. It’s an impressive snake but not one for the record books and certainly not nine feet long.



This is also a western diamondback. The striped raccoon tail is a dead giveaway. More camera tricks make the snake appear fairly large but I bet it was in the 3-4 foot range. Looks like it was clubbed to death, perhaps with the piece of lumber that is now shoving him towards the camera.



See the striped tail? Now you know this is also a western diamondback. We can’t attribute the tremendous length of this specimen to camera tricks as the man is holding it fairly close to his body. What’s the deal with the snake’s head? It looks like a sock puppet. This must be a mounted (i.e. stuffed) animal; it’s too stiff. Actually, my guess is that it’s two rattlesnakes sewn together. Maybe the man’s left hand is covering where they are joined; I don’t know why else he’d be holding the snake with that hand. We just can’t say for sure what’s going on here since it looks like a long dead and stuffed animal.


8/11/09 Edit: A reader has alerted me to the presence of a couple additional photos of this snake, including what is claimed to be its decapitated head (below). It's hard to say one way or the other whether this snake is legitimate. Nothing jumps out to definitively say it's a fake. If it's real, it's one of the largest western diamondbacks known to science.

Here’s a different species, a timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus. You can identify this snake by the dark chevrons on its back. Timbers are a wide-ranging species, found from Florida north to Vermont and west to Minnesota in the north and Texas to the south. Rather than the bald eagle, perhaps this snake should be our national symbol, as it was displayed prominently on flags during the American Revolution with the proud warning, “Don’t tread on me.”


Although this species is not uncommon in the south, it is virtually extinct in the northeastern portion of its range. In the latter areas, timber rattlesnakes den communally during the winter. Unscrupulous individuals can easily kill off many of these snakes in one outing, eliminating local populations with little effort.


This picture is often circulated with the claim that it was killed on a golf course somewhere on the east coast, typically Georgia. Although timber rattlesnakes are found in Georgia, the giant sizes attributed to this snake make the entire story suspect (note the ubiquitous pose with the snake close to the camera). Timbers rarely reach much more than five feet long and these would be extremely rare and extremely large individuals.



And now we come to the eastern diamondbacks, Crotalus adamanteus. This is a whopper of a snake to be sure but are you tired of the camera tricks yet? This dude looks more likely to be able to lift a 97 pound snake then the other guys we’ve seen, but we already know that rattlesnakes don’t get that big anyway. Update 4/30/12: A reader notes that they've seen this picture before and the caption said the snake was six feet long and 100 lbs. Six feet long could be true (I doubt it) but 100 lbs is definitely a made-up number.



Here’s another eastern diamondback, according to the caption it’s from Florida. Okay, so far so good. Wait, over 11 feet long! Give me a break. Notice how the gentlemen on the right are holding the snake with their fingertips; they must have quite a grip to pull that off. It’s more likely that this is a stiff mounted animal, probably a combination of two individuals.



This final photograph, in which three southeastern youngsters proudly display the snake they killed in their yard, is particularly moving. Although they may have incorrectly identified the species (identified as a "black snake" in the original caption), it’s truly a large animal. It’s actually an eastern indigo snake, Drymarchon corais, a federally threatened species. Reaching nine feet long, these snakes are among the largest in the United States.


Despite their size, they’re harmless to humans. Conversely, we have nearly wiped this species off the face of the planet. Due to over-collection for the pet trade, habitat loss, and gassing of their tortoise burrow refuges, eastern indigos cling on only in isolated patches, largely in coastal Georgia and peninsular Florida. It is considered extirpated (locally extinct) in Alabama and potentially so in the Florida panhandle.


That these individuals, their family, neighbors, and the staff of the local newspaper proudly publicized the trophy snake suggests they had no idea they were boasting about committing a felony and chasing an endangered species down the path to extinction in the process.


Nothing emphasizes to me the critical importance and pressing need of environmental education more than this photograph.