Western Diamond-Backed Rattlesnake — A Request For Respect And Understanding

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I was at my friend Sam’s place yesterday evening.  I asked Sam if he’d seen any rattlesnakes recently.  Sam’s home is on a large property that merges directly into the desert and rattlesnakes show up there fairly often during warm weather.  Sam and I poked around for about half a minute when Sam suddenly pointed to a rattler lying between two large rocks near the top of his driveway.  The snake was “Rosie,” a Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake that is a frequent visitor to Sam’s place.  Rosie is a pretty typical Diamondback. She’s about 3 1/2 feet long, mostly dark and light beige in color with the dark areas separated by narrow white bands, and in certain light her scales have a slightly pinkish hue.  Her diamond-shaped pattern of contrasting earth tones reminds me of an argyle sweater.  She’s of indeterminate age, but she’s a mom, having given birth to several offspring last autumn. Rattlesnakes, unlike most snakes and lizards, don’t lay eggs, but give birth to live young.

Rosie was doing what rattlers mostly do: lying motionless in partial concealment.  That’s her modus vivendi.  Rattlesnakes are ambush hunters.  They don’t actively pursue prey.  Rather, they find a good hiding place, lie there without moving — sometimes for days at a time — and wait for prey to come to them.  Their primary prey is small rodents.  Rattlesnakes have extremely efficient metabolisms and are able to go weeks and even months without eating.  For them, it’s all a matter of being patient.

And, as with all rattlesnakes, Rosie had concealed herself so well that she was almost invisible.  Her skin tones are almost the exact shade of the surrounding rocks and dirt, so when she’s not in motion she almost disappears into her background. Her camouflage is so good that when I looked away from her I had to search for her all over again when I looked back in her direction even though I knew exactly where she was lying.

Ask yourself this question:  if you were casually strolling around Sam’s yard would you see Rosie?  My guess is that for every rattlesnake I see (about a half dozen each year) I walk by ten that I do not see.

Rattlesnakes’ senses are organized much differently than ours.  They have decent vision and terrible hearing (people who yell at rattlers are wasting their breath).  They have an acute sense of “taste” consisting of the ability to discern odors and even the direction and location of odors via their forked tongues and a special organ (Jacobsen’s Organ) on the roofs of the mouths.  But, what really distinguishes their senses from ours is their ability to sense heat.  Rattlers have specialized pits in their faces, one on either side, that are exquisitely sensitive to heat.  A rattlesnake can sense the presence of a rodent or a human in total darkness and determine its location with precision.  Here’s a closeup of Rosie, with the pits plainly visible as whitish depressions.  Notice also the cactus spines protruding from her head.  Rosie seemed to be indifferent to them and I wasn’t tempted to help remove them.

Like all rattlesnakes, Rosie is totally disinterested in humans except as potential threats.  She has zero interest in attacking us.  Rattlers will defend themselves when molested and as we all know, their bites can be lethal.  However, if left alone, they will ignore us.  I kept a safe distance from Rosie — about five feet — as I photographed her.  She never moved, never rattled, never showed the least concern about my presence.  That’s fairly typical rattlesnake behavior.

Rattlers like Rosie are hugely beneficial to humans.  They are the world’s best-designed mousetraps.  But for rattlesnakes we’d be inundated in rodents.    They go about their business, I go about mine, and all is well.    I’m a strong believer in living and let live and I would never think of harming a rattlesnake.   Recently I encountered an individual who told me that he would shoot every rattlesnake that he saw.  “You must love rats” was my reply.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT speedlite, M setting, ISO 160.  The first image shot at f14 @ 1/160, the second at f16 @ 1/160.


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