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Diamondback Rattlesnake

If you do any amount of hiking in the Sonoran Desert, you will most certainly encounter a rattlesnake or two. These fascinating creatures occupy a valuable niche in the environment and deserve our respect. They are also a reminder and symbol of the wilderness experience you are seeking. To paraphrase Ed Abbey - 'Wilderness is big animals that can eat you'. This doesn't exactly apply in this case since rattlesnakes do not eat people (how would it get its mouth around your big head?), but you get the idea. Rattlesnakes are generally shy and fearful of humans and will not strike unless provoked. If you see a rattlesnake, consider yourself lucky. Maintain a safe distance (a snake can strike a distance of up to two-thirds of it's body length, if you maintain at least one body lengths distance you will be ok) step around it, and continue on your way.

Distinguishing Features

I don't know, the rattle maybe?!? Certainly the rattle is the easiest way to identify a rattlesnake. Even a baby rattlesnake has the first segment of a rattle, called a 'prebutton'. The prebutton is lost the first time the snake sheds it's skin and is replaced by a button. Each time a snake sheds it's skin, a new segment is added to the rattle. A snake may shed it's skin 1-4 times per year.

Half of all rattlesnake bites in the US occur because people purposefully interact with the snakes.

It is a myth that you can tell the age of a snake by the counting the number of rattles on its tail. The tail will only rattle when there are two or more segments (a baby rattler will shake it's tail, but it will produce more of a buzzing sound). The rattle is composed of keratin (the same stuff that makes up your finger nails). There is nothing inside the tail to make the noise, the sound is produced by the loose segments vibrating against one another. Interestingly enough, a rattlesnake can vibrate its tail at a rate greater than 60x per second. Scientists have found that the muscle fibers in the rattlesnakes tail are the fastest firing on the planet. Other distinguishing features of the snake include its triangular shaped head (very cool in my opinion), ridges over the eyes, and heat sensing pits (called loreal pits) in the front of its face (though if you can see these pits you're probably too close!).

Rodents (squirrels, mice and rabbits) make up the bulk of a rattlesnakes diet, though they also consume lizards and birds. Rattlesnakes use venom (basically toxic saliva) to capture prey. The venom is injected through hollow fangs (like hypodermic needles).  Snake venoms are complex, consisting of proteins that range from hemotoxins (which break down cells and tissue) to anticoagulants and neurotoxins (may cause circulatory arrest or respiratory paralysis). The snake hunts by lying in wait for a rodent to wander by. It then strikes and retreats, waiting for its prey to succumb to the venom. It then uses its heat sensing organs to locate its meal.
Natural History  
Several different types of rattlesnakes live in the Sonoran Desert, most notable are the: western diamondback rattler, the Mohave rattlesnake, the tiger rattlesnake, the black tail rattlesnake and the sidewinder. Rattlesnakes are most active at nights during the warmer months, and during the day in spring and fall. The snake typically hibernates during the colder winter months (often in a pack rat burrow, after eating or evicting its inhabitant), but may come out on warmer days to bask in the sun. Baby rattlers are typically born in late summer. They may have up to 22 other siblings, are 9-14 inches long and come equipped with fully functional teeth and venom (isn't that cute? ... ootchie..kootchie...koo).

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