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Poise and Dignity —Guest Post—

By Craig Guyer

One of the best adjectives for an amphibian or reptile is Bob Mount’s description that Eastern Diamondbacked Rattlesnakes interact with humans by showing “poise and dignity” (Mount, 1975). This description is a far better fit than the lore that has grown around this species, which describes it as being aggressive and willing to attack humans. The venoms produced by these snakes are quite potent and, if the lore were correct, there would be many more deaths attributed to them since they remain widely distributed and are commonly observed.

The description above represents the view that scientists have come to believe to be true of all rattlesnakes. But, there is something about these animals that causes an immediate visceral reaction in anyone discovering them. Invariably the discoverer is quite close to the snake when it is discovered and the discoverer’s brain is most likely to trigger the flight response – as in jump, run, or shoot to kill. My most vivid experience with Eastern Diamondbacked Rattlesnakes involved discovering one while I was censusing Gopher Tortoise burrows. For a 10-year period I made repeated censuses of about 300 tortoises distributed across the Conecuh National Forest. Typically, I would census once in the spring and once in the fall of each year and I used these data to try and understand how long tortoise burrows last as physical structures and how frequently they are abandoned by Gopher Tortoises. Of course, these burrows are a vital resource for a wide variety of other animals, including serving as an overwintering refuge for Eastern Diamonbacked Rattlesnakes. All of my tortoise burrows were marked with numbered metal tags and each census involved a tedious practice of kneeling down in from of each burrow to try to find a tag that was likely buried by vegetation growth or covered by shifting sands. Once the number was discovered, I would then stand and record that number and the status of the burrow. Because of the tedium, speed frequently became more important to me than safety. Fortunately for me, during this entire time period I only detected two rattlesnakes, one during the fall as I walked from one burrow to another, and the other during spring, when I noticed one coiled right next to my metal tag.

Trips to the Conecuh National Forest have been an
Auburn Herpetology tradition for decades.
 I had already knelt down, swiped my hand across the burrow entrance to discover the tag, and stood up to begin recording the data, when I detected the snake. The color pattern of these animals is a remarkable match to the light ground color of sandy soil, the tans of pine straw, and the dark patches of shadows. The snake had clearly detected me because it was flicking its tongue in my direction. But, it did not rattle nor had it moved when I first saw it.  My first reaction was to jump away, but I managed to quash that urge and decided that, since the species was supposed to interact with “poise and dignity”, I could finish recording my notes and slowly move away. I am confident that I was standing outside the strike range of the snake when I first saw it, so I was not too worried until the snake started to crawl. At that moment I decided that a “poised and dignified” snake would simply slip down the tortoise burrow and both of us would feel more comfortable. The animal instead began to crawl past the burrow entrance straight toward my position on the apron of the burrow. The science side of my brain said this was nothing to worry about because the animal would soon do the right thing and go down its refuge. But, the snake continued toward me until its body was past the entrance and well with the range of being able to strike at and bite me. At the very moment that I was about to end my experiment and jump away, the animal gave a very brief and soft rattle, backed down the burrow, and was never seen again.

I suppose the moral of the story is that science prevailed. This snake had every opportunity to bite me and did not. Mostly this was when I was blindly searching for the metal tag. But, this was also true when I chose to determine how the snake would react to my simply standing more-or-less motionless. There was a period of time when it appeared as though the snake might be attacking me, but this turned out to be the snake’s method of making sure that it could keep close tabs on me until it knew that it was safe from me. I think poise and dignity are fine adjectives for this animal’s behavior. I accept that my behavior might best be described as stupid.