On the beauty of rattlesnakes

This is the year of the timber rattlesnake on the Southern Cumberland Plateau. I’ve seen and heard of more in the last five months than I have in the last twenty years combined. They’re sleeping in gardens, gliding across porches, crossing wooded trails, and swimming on asphalt. Most seem to be one or two years old, suggesting that we’re seeing the result of a baby-boom in 2013 or 2014. What might have caused such a successful hatch year is a mystery: perhaps a good mast year of acorns and hickory nuts swelled the rodent population, echoing a year later in the abdomens of fecund snake mothers? Another possibility is that the last two winters have been colder here than any within the last decade, pinching the rodent supply this year, making snakes take to the road where we then encounter them. Certainly 2014 was chipmunk-poor after the “Arctic Vortex” made several visits. I estimate an 80% drop in chipmunks the following spring.

Whatever the cause, these snakes inevitably run foul of humans. Many are dead on the roads; others are killed around habitations. I’ve picked up a few of these corpses and, before giving them a respectful return to the woodland community, I’ve taken great pleasure in examining what must surely be called their gorgeousness. Each individual has a different mottled pattern, but all grade in tone and texture from head to tail.

2015-08-05 Rattlesnake head12015-08-05 Rattlesnake head2The nostril (higher) and pit organ (below) jut into the world. Inside the pit organ, a membrane hides a profusion of nerve endings and  blood vessels. Nerve receptors tingle when temperature changes; blood carries away last second’s heat, letting the snake know moment-by-moment how its thermal environment is changing. The pit organ’s information runs directly to the same part of the brain that receives signals from the eyes. So “heat” is seen by rattlesnakes. The pits are extra eyes, functioning like pin-hole cameras. Oh, to be able to experience such a synesthetic world, if only for a few seconds.

And down the body we go, a cascade of forested scales:

2015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0122015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0172015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0212015-08-05 Rattlesnake 0242015-08-05 Rattlesnake 026And the tale ends with the longest rattle so far among the deceased:

2015-08-25 Rattlesnake tailFor encounters with live snake cousins, I invite you to more sounds and sights.

Nemo me impune lacessit. Time to reclaim the Gadsden flag for all.

11 thoughts on “On the beauty of rattlesnakes

  1. Angelo Capparella

    Thanks so much for this essay. I hope someday in my area (central IL) the restoration of the highly endangered Eastern Massasauga rattler will have as much support as other organisms. Hard enough to defend and restore the non-poisonous snakes that have declined.

    Reply
  2. Liam McGranaghan

    In Northern Virginia increased development is taking its toll on these wonderful creatures. Most snakes only see a man once and that is certainly true for the rattlesnake. It a shame people don’t understand their true behavior and place in our temperate deciduous forests. If these snake could talk they should say ” Don’t tread on me and I won’t bite. Admire my beauty and my place in nature and I will go in peace”

    Reply
  3. April Minkler

    Speaking for the mostly-despised “no-leggeds” we thank you for this gorgeous pictorial and text.

    Maybe the rattlesnake should replace the eagle as our national symbol. Might give our purported adversaries

    pause. Might not.

    Reply

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