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Diamonds on the Move

This column was originally written in fall of 2008.

Last weekend I came face to snout with the magnificent king of the longleaf pine forest, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus. I was in south-central Alabama, driving slowly along some dirt roads in Conecuh National Forest when I saw him slowly make his way across my path. He was as stately as a snake could be, his slightly arched back prominently displaying the golden-bordered diamonds checkered across his body. It was an exciting discovery.

The eastern diamondback is the largest rattlesnake in the world and it’s known only from the southeastern United States. Although this impressive animal can be abundant in some areas, populations of this species are declining throughout their range. Whenever I have the good fortune to find one, it’s an exhilarating experience. This snake was a large mature adult, probably almost four feet long. I admired the unique tail, without getting too close, I counted about ten rattles. Rattlesnakes don’t add a rattle each year, as is commonly thought, they add a rattle each time they shed their skin. This happens frequently when a snake is young and growing fast but less often once a snake reaches maturity.

It’s fall, which means it’s time for these usually extremely secretive animals to start crawling around looking for mates. Although most people associate the spring with the birds and the bees, diamondbacks conduct their business in September and October. It takes them about a year from mating to produce a litter, giving birth the following fall. This is a big investment for the snakes and they likely only breed once every few years.

I knew better than to get too close. These venomous snakes command respect and it’s not worth taking a chance. I sometimes need to handle this species for my work, and when I do so I am extremely cautious. Most of the nature shows on television are more sensational than realistic. They often give people the wrong impression regarding the proper way to handle dangerous animals.

Because of their potentially dangerous nature, rattlesnakes are much maligned and feared. Many interactions between people and snakes result in a dead serpent. But attempting to kill or harass a rattlesnake is much more dangerous than walking the other way. The overwhelming majority of reported venomous snake bites occur on people’s hands and arms. Now, if they were minding their own business, what do you think the chances are of getting bit on their hands by a snake?

About two weeks ago, a central Georgian man was bitten by an eastern diamondback rattlesnake and required emergency care. This is a tragic incident but not the whole story. When he saw the snake crossing the road, he proceeded to drive over it multiple times with his tractor and then attempted to beat the still-writhing animal to death with a deer antler. The snake bit the man between his fingers before its head was cut off with a shovel. Fortunately, the man survived.

The entire incident could have been easily avoided. How? By letting the snake finish crossing the road.

When a snake is encountered in natural settings, it’s not safe to go out of one’s way in an attempt to kill it, it’s dangerous and it doesn’t respect the role that these animals play in natural environments. They have many jobs, eating rodents perhaps primary among them.

However, when you have rattlesnakes in your yard and you’re concerned about your children or pets, it’s understandable that you’d want them gone, and quickly. Instead of finding ways to get rid of snakes, it may be more effective to dissuade them from ever establishing residence in the first place.

If there’s one thing that snakes love, it’s hiding places. If you don’t want snakes around your house, make sure to remove any brush piles. These animals often hide in stacks of wood. Keep lawns mowed and bushes trimmed so that they don’t reach the ground, this eliminates cover for snakes. Although much has been said about commercially available snake repellents, their usefulness has not been clearly demonstrated.

There’s no denying that rattlesnakes are potentially dangerous. But by using some common sense you can virtually eliminate your risk of a bite. If you’re concerned about your children, make sure they can identify potentially dangerous animals and teach them to give vipers a wide berth. Always watch where you put your hands and wear appropriate footwear if you’re in snake habitat. No sandals! A snake minding its own business is not likely to bother you. If you see a snake in nature, just leave it alone.

The rattlesnake I found last week sure wasn’t interested in me. After I took some photographs from a safe distance, it slithered away into the wiregrass. Once it reached the forest, the snake’s camouflaged patterning made it nearly invisible. I wondered how many I walk by without ever knowing they’re there.