Saturday, September 29, 2012

Is This Photo Real: Ten Foot Rattler in George West With Jackrabbit

I often get e-mails from people asking me about the authenticity of snake photographs. For example, a couple months ago I received an e-mail from a newspaper editor in Louisiana with the photo on the right attached. The entire e-mail consisted of a single line: "Do you think this photo is real?"

I could have answered, "Yep, that's a real photo of a snake." and gone about my day. But, I don't think that's what people really want to know. What they should be asking me is, "Is this snake really as large as I perceive it to be?"

I am sometimes accused of beating a dead horse on this blog, because many of my rattlesnake posts hit on a similar theme. It's true that I am running out of new and interesting ways of saying that when you look at a photograph, objects that are close to the camera (i.e., in the foreground) appear larger than objects that are in the background. This can cause the object in the foreground to seem very large when there is nothing else there. 

Those that accuse me of retreading familiar territory over and over again underestimate the internet phenomenon that is the myth of the giant dead rattlesnake. It doesn't seem to matter how many times I explain the photo tricks, whenever a new photograph pops up we have to start over again.

In any case, I did not write a blog based on the picture above when I first received it because there was no associated story, and it's no fun to write about (or read about, I presume) a picture without any sensational "details". Besides, it seemed like an isolated incident and hadn't gone viral.

Cut to a few months later, and the internet forums (like, here, here, and here) are abuzz with this picture.

And, now we have this:
" I have killed several over 6' and seen a bunch killed over 6', but I do not remember any with a body girth like this one has.
Killed near George West.
That’s a big Jackrabbit!! 
Keep your snake boots on,,,,,,,they make you so much more safe and secure,,,,,,,,,"
In addition to this text, one of the forums I link to above notes that this photograph was taken by a friend, and that the snake was ten feet long (3 meters) and again, eating a jackrabbbit. 

Okay-now we have something to work with. 

Presumably the author is referring to George West, Texas. The first problem is the rabbit identification. Now, this is not exactly my area of expertise but I think that the white puffy tail (together with the color patterning) means that this animal is a cottontail rabbit. Assuming that the location is correct, then this is probably a Desert Cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii (can I get some feedback from mammal folks in the Comments?). This is an impressive meal to swallow whole, but cottontails are generally about half the size of jackrabbits, give or take.

The snake in the picture is a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox. You can tell by the diamond-shaped patterning and the black and white tail. This species is found throughout Texas (except for the eastern portion of the state), including in and around George West. Western Diamondbacks could reach six feet long (1.8 meters) but this would be an extremely rare and giant snake. There has never been a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (or any other rattlesnake species, for that matter) that, when reliably measured, came anywhere close to ten feet long. As I mention elsewhere, 

"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."

So, 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.

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