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Gimme Shelter…

Today I received an e-mail from Georgia about dead rattlesnakes; the e-mail indicated it may have originated from the state. The text reads,

My buddy and I went to the farm today for a little deer hunting, which was a washout. Since we had some time to kill we decided to check out the farmhouse, barns and finally… the storm shelter. No one had been down there in about 15 years so I figured it was due for an inspection. I was standing at the truck moving some gear and hear the door creak open followed swiftly by my buddy yell, ” **** RATTLESNAKE. ” I turn in time to see him in mid leap flying away from the open hole. Well, we screw up the courage to look in the hole and see over a dozen LARGE rattlesnakes all over the stairs. A raging bout of our 18 year old bullet proof selves kicked in so we gathered up a t-post, a pitch fork and an axe handle then proceeded into the darkness. A few short, bloody, adrenaline filled minutes later we resurfaced with a pile of snakes and a cleaned out storm shelter.

First off, we can emphatically state that this picture was not taken in the southeastern United States, because these are Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Crotalus atrox, not the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Crotalus adamanteus, that occur in this portion of the country. Although they are closely related, Westerns aren’t found east of Texas and Arkansas. The patterning on Easterns is typically black squares bordered by gold, but one of the easiest ways to tell them apart is by looking at the tail. Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes have a characteristic black and white striped tail. These two species are often mistaken for each other.

Another reason we know this picture is not from the southeastern United States is that Eastern Diamondbacks aren’t typically found together in these numbers. Unlike Western Diamondbacks (or Timber/Canebrake Rattlesnakes, Crotalus horridus), Easterns don’t den communally. They will spend their winters in stumpholes or gopher tortoise burrows (among other refuge types), by themselves.

In previous posts, I’ve discussed how rattlesnake stories circulated by e-mail are often exaggerated. But this one seems legitimate. As I mentioned, Western Diamondbacks will often spend winter together in subterranean refuges, a storm shelter might be a suitable place to find shelter. One potential inconsistency is that the text indicates there were “about a dozen” rattlesnakes, and the pictures show ten. But I’d say ten is close enough to roughly 12. Another concern may be that the picture has been modified to make the snakes appear larger than they really were. Well, it’s hard to know what kind of truck is shown in the picture above, but most tailgates are considerably smaller than six feet in width. A couple of the snakes look to be about as long as the tailgate is wide and most are smaller. All are within the known length range of the species.

12/11/09 Edit. I believe I have tracked down the original source of the pics and story to an individual in Texas that shared them on a bow hunting forum. Others must have taken that information and started forwarding it via e-mail, without mention of the original location. In this forum, the individual later notes there was also a rat snake and coachwhip present. They let these non-venomous snakes go unharmed.

I believe the story to be true; another unfortunate but understandable reaction to potentially harmful reptiles in or around human habitation. Tips on keeping rattlesnakes away from your home can be found here