Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ectothermic Lives Matter!

Driving back to the home place yesterday morning, having checked cows (yay!) and dug thistle (boo!), I caught an interesting image from my peripheral vision as I crested a hilltop on the county road.

Was that...?

Sure looks like it in the mirror...

I backed up 100 feet and took a closer look.



Smile on my face!

I love rattlesnakes. I'm terrified of rattlesnakes. But I love rattlesnakes.

They are just so damned cool!

Flash back to a very long time ago. Probably, in fact, the Summer of '69.

No, it wasn't like that at all. But then again, we're not Canadians.

Anyway, growing up on a ranch I'd had the opportunity to see rattlesnakes. I don't think I ever saw one "by myself" until I was probably 13 or 14. Prior to that the snakes I saw were in the process of being killed. Most commonly, I'd be riding along with Dad or Grandpa, they'd pull over, say "stay in the pickup," and reach for a shovel.

They taught me that you always kill rattlesnakes, you always chop off and bury the head, and you always chop off the rattles, take them home, and throw them in a coffee can with the others.

Rattlesnakes are poisonous, went the logic, and are a threat to people, dogs, and livestock. Therefore, it was (and according to very many folks, still is) the duty of the rancher to kill 'em all.

I remember thinking how cool it was that my Dad and Grandpa were brave enough to take on deadly snakes with only a shovel. Heck, I remember Grandpa killing one with a high lift jack one time, then cutting off its head and rattles with his pocketknife. The man had stones, I'm tellin' ya!

Sometime early in the Summer of '69 I began to pester Dad and Grandpa to let me kill a rattlesnake. One day Grandpa (probably exhausted by my persistent begging) allowed as how I would be permitted to kill the next one.

"Wilbur!," said Grandma.

"With a shotgun," Grandpa quickly amended.

The day finally came. A rattlesnake was sunning itself in the county road. I stepped out of the pickup with my trusty single shot 20 gauge. And botched the job.

After five clean misses, I finally kept my eyes open long enough to hit the snake, and blew it almost completely in twain right in the middle. It was still moving, so I shot it in the head to finish it. Since the head was in close proximity to the tail, and I was using a shotgun, I managed to ruin the trophy rattles with my coup de grâce.

I was chuffed, because I'd bested a deadly snake in single combat, and was therefore pretty much a real man. Of course I was also much chagrined for being a terrible shot and a nervous nelly and for ruining the rattles.

But I'd done it, I'd killed a rattlesnake, and that was really important.

Over the next few years I killed a lot of rattlesnakes. I hunted them, learned their ways, learned to find their hiding places, learned to find their winter dens. My coffee can overflowed.

I never came close to killing them all. Somewhere along the line it got to be a chore, and most of the fun and adventure went out of it. I also began to notice some interesting discrepancies in the logic of killing all rattlesnakes.

I never, personally, met anyone who had been bitten. I heard a lot of stories, and once in a while there'd be a news item about snakebite, But I never personally laid eyes on a victim. (I've since met two, neither of whom enjoyed the experience but were also never in mortal peril).

We never had any dogs bit, never any cattle bit, and to the best of my knowledge, only ever had one animal bit, a horse, back in the 1950's, which survived.

So I did the math and decided to dedicate my life to something else.

Many years later, when I'd returned from the sea and had taken up ranching again, I ran across another rattlesnake sunning in the road. And I couldn't think of a good reason to kill it.

They still scare the hell out of me.

They're scary for a reason. They can kill you, although it's more likely that an envenomating bite from one will merely (lol, merely) make you very ill, and perhaps cause parts of your body to rot and fall off. Or be surgically debrided away or amputated. This is absolute fact.

On the other hand, there are a lot more things in the world that are a lot more dangerous, and you face a lot more danger day in and day out as you go about your normal life than you will ever face from a rattlesnake.

Particularly a prairie rattlesnake.

Crotalus viridis viridis. Roughly translated, "percussive rattle" (Greek) "green green" (Latin). In my experience, prairie rattlesnakes are quite docile and will put up with a lot of abuse before making a defensive strike. I've stepped on them twice on my life, both times while fixing fence, and in neither case did the snake strike.

Of course they might have been laughing too hard to strike having watched me levitate three feet up and twenty feet back while screaming like a girl.

I'm not saying they won't bite, but the numbers I can find show them responsible for about three bites per year, and almost always while being handled. According to wikisnakeipedia, prairie rattlesnakes haven't caused a fatal snakebite since the 19-teens, when three small children died after being bitten.

Prairie rattlesnake venom is pretty darned toxic. Mostly a hemotoxin, it also has neurotoxic properties. Given that, one could conjecture that the low number of deaths is due at least in part to the snake's reluctance to strike defensively.

Now on to the cool stuff!

First of all, rattlesnakes are pit vipers, which means that they come equipped with FLIR! They have thermoreceptive organs located in "pits" on each side of their nose, between the nostril and the eye. These organs allow them to sense the body heat of their mammalian prey. As I understand it, their heat "vision" is far more exact and acute than their normal vision. Now how can that be anything but cool?
See the pit?

They've also got forked tongues, which people tend to think is a bit creepy. But those tongues are part of yet another fantastic sensory system. When they flick their tongues out, the tips pick up molecules from the air. Then they pull the tongue back in and insert the tips into small openings in the roof of the mouth, which lead to the Jacobson's, or vomeronasal organ. In the rattlesnake, this organ is adds yet another layer to the rich sensory picture they detect of their surroundings. Not only can they use the Jacobson's organ to find prey, it allows them to track prey after striking it. Cool, neh?
Tongue retracting.

Prairie rattlesnakes mate in the late summer, but females usually only mate every other year. When they do mate, they retain the eggs internally and then bear live young once the eggs hatch inside. The little snakes are born with fangs and venom and are ready to begin hunting from the moment they hit the ground.

It's not easy being a young rattlesnake though, and they are especially heavily predated by raptors. It's not uncommon at all to see a hawk snatch up a little snake and fly away with it clutched in iron talons.

Well, anyway.

Forty-seven years after I took on the snake and covered myself in manly glory, I faced off against another snake at almost exactly the same place. The snake hadn't fundamentally changed, but I sure had. I took pictures and video, chased him off the road and into the prairie, and drove on home with a smile on my face and a song in my heart.


  1. Thanks for the video. I pretty much feel like you do. Never went out of my way to kill anything, but when necessary, I can. Respect nature, and be aware.

    1. You're welcome and thanks for stopping by. Nature is waaay cool.

  2. Fascinating animal, they seem very maneuverable and muscular. Interesting how he (she?) was keeping an eye on you while tracking away from you.

    God created them all for a reason, they're all part of the grand scheme of things.

    Pieces in the great puzzle of life.

    Another excellent post Shaun. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Sarge.

      Nature never disappoints. She might kill you, but she never disappoints.

  3. Pretty much the same here. A lot of hillbillies will kill any snake they see. They seem to enjoy running over any snake found in a road--turtles, too. Bastards.
    Not a month ago, I came to a stop on the road to allow a snake to make his way across. Not 2 weeks ago, I stopped & moved a snapping turtle. When I kill something, I've got a damned good reason. I don't like to kill unnecessarily. Hell, when a squirrel darts under a wheel, it bums me out for a little while, even if utterly unavoidable (squirrels really aren't very bright about where & when to run).
    --Tennessee Budd

    1. I feel the same about jackrabbits. Feel bad that they get squished even though it's just nature's way of strengthening the gene pool.

      Killing is a paradox. Death is permanent, and you can't ever bring back something you've killed. At the same time, we kill pretty much everything we eat, and couldn't live any other way.