Monday, November 27, 2006

Shake, Rattle and Roll

Well, Florabot suggested a specific EUT which fits the bill well. However, with going to the Columbus Zoo1 on Saturday and getting ready Sunday for a three-week long trip to the Gal├ípagos Islands2, I’m a little late putting up a post about a wonderfully misunderstood animal. I don’t think it’s ugly, but I know most people can’t stand snakes.

Image from Dad
Image by Dan Yaussy

The scientific name of the timber rattler (Crotalus horridus) is not as bad a moniker as I had originally thought. Crotalus refers to the rattle of the rattlesnake, and horridus, which seems to imply a terrifying animal, just refers to its raised stalking pose. Its bite is venomous, but apparently not as deadly to people as other rattlesnakes. According to a Minnesota herpetology site, the last lethal timber rattler bite in Minnesota was in the 1800’s.

Timber rattlesnakes are a middling size snake, somewhere between 3 and 4 feet long, and they have amazing camouflage for lying in wait among the leaf litter in the forests they call home. They ambush small mammals by positioning themselves conveniently in the paths the rodents run along. The females give birth (yes, birth. Not egg-laying) only every three years, and it takes her about five years to get to maturity. Even with their 20-year lifespan, that only leads to about six litters.

I’m sure no one will be surprised when I say that development, cars, and wanton killing are the leading threats to the timber rattlesnake. In fact, the wanton killing leads to an interesting example of selection at work. For the last 200 years, if a snake struck at a person, it got killed. If a snake even rattled at a person, it got killed. This leads, fairly quickly, to quiet, generally non-aggressive snakes. Which can be a problem, since they only rattle to let you know to not step on them. A friend and co-worker of my dad’s apparently walked along a line in a forest in southern Ohio multiple times, only to look down once and see a timber rattler, silently sitting right on the line.

On the site where the Ohio Department of Natural Resources asks people to help report sightings of timber rattlers, it is actively denied that the snakes are being released in Ohio. Why would a department of natural resources have to actively deny a conservation effort? The reason lies around a myth; a myth surrounding timber rattlesnake conservation that is far more exciting than any real conservation efforts would ever strive to be. According to this myth, ODNR uses black helicopters at night to drop rattlesnakes into potential habitats. That’s right, black helicopters. At night. This myth neglects to take several factors into account: A) Do you really think ODNR has the funding to buy several black helicopters? and B) If they really wanted to surreptitiously release rattlesnakes, wouldn’t three guys, a pillowcase full of snakes, and an ATV make more sense, both economically and logistically?

Oh well, myths will be myths.

1Tried to get a good timber rattler picture. Didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped.
2This is a warning to any die-hard readers (yes, both of you): I’m going to be on a small boat in the Pacific for three weeks. My parents and girlfriend might not get a phone call. Don’t expect a post.


IAMB said...

Gonna have to agree: rattlesnakes are definitely not ugly.

About the "losing the rattle" thing, one of the grad students here is a herpetologist and his thesis work involves rattlesnakes. We were just discussing this two weeks back, and it seems that not only are the snakes starting to be quieter in behavior, but may actually be losing their rattles completely in some populations. It's suspected that the rattle evolved in the first place to avoid being stepped on by native ungulates, but now it's really a fairly useless bit of anatomy. Should be interesting to see what happens over the next few centuries... if they aren't extinct, that is.

Anonymous said...

Love your blog - have a wonderful time on your trip to the Galapagos!

Anonymous said...
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IAMB said...

Arrgh! Spam! Kill it before it breeds!

Anonymous said...
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Garfman said...

Eeh! Those things breed FAST! But duely noted and killed.

Anonymous said...

Hello, My name is Todd McClintic. I live in SouthWebster , Ohio. Southern ohio near Wayne National Forest. Just a few days ago i was mushroom hunting and just before i was about to leave the ridge line where i was at i thought to myself "Well i'll check this one last spot before i go!" MISTAKE!!! I steped and leaned to the ground , i noticed leave move a few feet from me but i thought i just must have steped on a long stick or branch? I was wrong! I stretched my neck and raised up when this 4 to 5 foot long wat i thought at the time was a blacksnake lunged in front of me! it went about 7 feet to my left with amazing speed and agility! I was just going to step away and leave when i heard a sound i had never heard before but it was unmistakable! This bone chilling rattling ! THe only open place for me to step was towards the snake or closer to it sideways! I am scared to death of snakes I actually have a phobia of them>?!! SO u can imagine my discomfort and fear at this moment. I just froze and stayed still, It would stop rattling but still with its strong body raised in the air tasting the air it was looking at me , almost as if it was stalking me! Every way i would try to move it would move this was to with me laterally! I had nothing but trees and huge briar bushes to my back < none of the trees were climbable , mind you! And i had huge steel toed boots on so i was not very fleet a foot! With every move i would make it would rattle vigorously and open its mouth even i had never in my life seen such a site! Finally i left the mushrooms and took off through the briar bushes and trees knocking down everything in my path! at one point i had gone every bit of 50 yards and the snake was still behind me at a distance! everything i have read in looking up features of this snake would somewhat dispute its actions ,but it did, i swear on every thing i love actually stalk and somewhat chase me! If u have any information u could help me with about these snakes or are interested in my altercation with this snake you can reach me at (740)250-8070 or (740) 778-0307! Thanks , Todd McClintic!