Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Readers Write In: Why Didn't This Rattlesnake Rattle at Me?

Good afternoon David,

I just came across this guy on a mushroom hunt. It's the fourth one I've seen on our property this year, and the fifth one in the area. It seems to be the year of the Timber Rattlesnake.

Why didn't he let me know he was there? I didn't notice him until my foot was about two feet from his tail. My wife and I have a bet going: my guess is it due to the temperature (low 70s), as it also didn't ever move while I was taking pictures.

Thanks, David!  As always I look forward to your wisdom if you have the time to share.

Ben M.
Loachapoka, Alabama

     Ben wants to know why this Timber Rattlesnake did not start rattling to warn him he was too close. The answer is that Timber Rattlesnakes, like just about any other snake, do not want to get into a confrontation with people. The rattlesnake was actually relying on its camouflage to make sure Ben never even noticed it. Once a snake starts rattling, then that snake is letting everyone nearby know that it is there. That is a risky behavior because at that point a confrontation has begun and it often ends with a dead snake.

   A rattle is basically a last resort to warn incoming predators that they should stay away. It is much better for the snake if things never escalate that much. When most snakes notice us, they either leave quickly or stay motionless and rely on their camouflage to avoid us. As a result, most of us walk right by snakes every day and we never even notice, it is only when a confrontation with a snake has begun that things seem scary. But, what we are actually seeing is a snake that thinks its life is in danger and must defend itself.

   A rattle is a warning and a defensive behavior, it is not an advertisement.

   It is true that snakes are a little more sluggish when it is relatively cool out and low 70's F can feel quite chilly for Alabama, but the species has an extensive geographic range that includes the northeastern United States; they can be active at lower temperatures. I think that this rattlesnake would have started rattling if it felt threatened. Kudos to Ben for not pushing it to this point, it is the best way to avoid a bite!

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