Dakota Datebook

Prairie Rattlers

Wednesday, June 2, 2004

Rattlesnake season is upon us – anyway for those of us who live west of the Missouri River. Rattlers will need a full meal every 10 days until the weather reaches the 80s and 90s; then, they will need to eat only once every three weeks. During the fall, they’ll increase their meals to once every two weeks in order to store enough fat to get them through winter hibernation.

Rattlesnakes are less dangerous than their reputations have led us to believe. They are shy and have a top speed of only three miles per hour.

When asked about rattlers, a homesteader named Sara Ingle said, “Sure, I killed them by myself. It didn’t take much to kill a rattlesnake.” It was said that Eva Pop, who was known for her marksmanship, “could pick the head off a rattler at 100 feet.”

The most deadly species, the diamondbacks, reside in the southwest. Bites cause less than one death per year in the parts of Arizona where rattlers are especially numerous.

Compare that to some of the deadly bites given by wood ticks and mosquitoes!

The rattler’s nasty reputation stems largely from hair-raising stories invented to hoax gullible immigrants; they were told that a rattler’s bite always led to death, sometimes within 3 or 4 minutes. They were even told that if a diamondback bit an ax handle or wheel spoke, it would swell up as big as a man’s arm.

The prairie rattler’s bite is, of course, a serious thing, but it’s not necessarily deadly to a grown adult or animal. Small rodents, on the other hand, succumb very quickly to its venom. Having no arms or legs, a rattlesnake would have trouble staying alive if it couldn’t immobilize its victims with poison. Once its prey is dead, the snake locates it and begins the process of ingesting it by unhinging its jaw, grasping the rodent by its nose, and slowly swallowing it whole.

The rattlesnake gets its name from its warning signal – the vibration of the hollow horny segments at the tip of its tail. Many believe that each segment represents a year’s time.

Actually, a segment is added each time the snake sheds its skin, which can happen a couple times a year. Depending on the prevailing temperature, the rattles vibrate at speeds from 20 to 90 cycles per second.

Surprisingly, they have very poor eyesight and no ears. They sense movement through vibrations traveling through the ground. Their keen sense of smell is not through their nostrils, but through the tips of their forked tongues, which is why they flick them when they’re alert or excited.

Between their eyes and nostrils is a small deep pit that’s highly sensitive to temperature. This feature provides a means of sensing warm-blooded animals and has led to the name “pit viper.” These sensors are especially useful at night and during cooler weather.

Rattlesnakes don’t lay eggs – they give birth to live young. Here in North Dakota, they do this every other year. They breed in the fall, hibernate during the winter, and give birth in midsummer after a gestation period of 155 days.

They hibernate in large groups and are often found traveling to their underground dens at the same time. The observation of rattlers traveling together in a specific direction has led to the belief that they migrate, but it isn’t true. They’re simply converging for the winter.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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