“The rattlesnake has sharp eyes, and therefore may be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor when once engaged, never surrenders. She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage … She never wounds ‘till she has generously given notice, even to the enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.” (written by an anonymous person to the Pennsylvania Journal in December 1775, recommending the rattlesnake be designated as the country’s official symbol.)
That anonymous individual obviously had an understanding of the habits of rattlesnakes, and an appreciation for the reptiles. However, today’s rattlesnakes, at least the ones inhabiting the eastern half of the country, are disinclined to warn potential enemies by rattling unless they are imminently threatened. During my tromping around in rattlesnake habitats in the Southeast, I have encountered numerous rattlesnakes and have nearly stepped on several, and only once did a rattlesnake rattle before I saw it. It makes good sense for a rattlesnake not to use its rattle in the vicinity of a human, but instead to remain perfectly still, relying on camouflage to avoid detection. The rattlesnake that rattles within the earshot of a human passers-by is far more likely to be killed than would a silent rattlesnake. Thus, natural selection against the rattling habit in areas where encounters with humans are likely has resulted in a disincentive for the snakes to use their rattles.
The aforementioned exceptional rattler was one in a desolate undisturbed area of southern Clarke County, which attracted me by rattling from a distance of at least 25 feet. Few humans are likely to be prowling around in that area during warm weather. In the sparsely populated deserts of the lower Southwest, rattlesnakes are more likely to warn with their rattles than their eastern counterparts.
Rattlesnakes have always fascinated me. Three of the 15 species that occur in the U.S. are found in Alabama. The most common and widespread is the canebrake or timber rattlesnake. The pygmy rattlesnake is infrequently encountered and small, seldom exceeding 20 inches in length.
The eastern diamondback is restricted almost entirely to the lower two tiers of Alabama counties, and is the largest rattler in the country, having been recorded as attaining a length of eight feet. It is also my favorite. In my 1975 book, The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama, I wrote, “During an encounter with man the diamondback conducts itself with poise and dignity. When not in the open, it is loath to move or rattle and will remain perfectly still… When touched, or when a direct confrontation is imminent, the snake assumes the defensive attitude, body coiled, rattle erect and buzzing … Once in this stance, the rattler tends to hold its ground until the threat of danger has passed.”
Dr. Bruce Means, the leading authority on the species, in 1986, wrote the following in Vertebrate Animals in Need of Special Attention: “The diamondback has experienced a substantial decline in numbers over the past three decades. There is no indication that the decline is subsiding.
“Rattlesnakes are killed by most people whenever confronted. The widespread practice of gassing burrows of the gopher tortoise to kill or evict them for use in ‘rattlesnake roundups’ is a detriment not only to the rattlesnakes but also to a complex community of at least 40 other species of animals that utilize tortoise burrows. Several of these species are threatened or rare, or are experiencing problems more serious than the rattlesnake’s in their own struggles to survive.”
A petition to declare the eastern diamondback as a threatened or endangered species has been submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A 90-day period during which enlightened public commentary will be considered, along with scientific data, will help determine whether the species deserves to be protected as a threatened or endangered species.
An outspoken opponent of the proposal is Don Childre, a snake hunter and organizer of the Opp Rattlesnake Roundup, a gala held annually in Opp, featuring captured diamondback rattlesnakes. In the 1970s, as many as 400 rattlers were brought to the roundup. This year, only 27 snakes were captured and displayed. Yet, Childre makes the ridiculous claim, “There is no shortage of these things here.”
I have predicted that if the Opp festival continues to base its popularity primarily on the capture and display of eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, it will eventually cease to exist. The sound of the death knell is certainly heard by everyone in Opp who has ears, even if Mr. Childre doesn’t seem to hear out of his.
If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the eastern diamondback as a threatened or endangered species, it deserves a feather in its cap. If it does not, it obviously pays more attention to politicians than to scientists.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.