A morning in June, hiking in a rocky canyon, my wandering thoughts were broken by an insistent buzz. It sounded like seeds shaken in a gourd. The circular edges of the coiled snake caught my eye. So hidden, yet in plain sight. If she hadn’t warned me, I would have stepped within a foot of where she lay cozied up to a granite boulder.
Yet this rattlesnake had already sized me up, literally. Pit vipers have heat sensing pits located behind each nostril. These allow rattlesnakes to detect differences in temperature from several yards away. As I approached, the snake perceived my outline and would be able to do so even in pitch dark. During the day, keen vision contributes to the picture the snake considers to decide if an animal is potential prey. I am a bit big for even this large snake to swallow whole, so mostly she was just telling me to back off.
Pinned by the glare of the rattlesnake, I reached slowly for my camera. She rattled some more. I was plenty far away, but it’s not often we encounter critters that have the ability to do us serious harm. A combination of fear and awe put a shake in my hands. But her rattle shakes like you can’t imagine, vibrating up to 60 times per second, causing the segments of keratin at the end of her tail to buzz.
The venom that so scares us hikers is an amazingly complex combination of proteins, including neurotoxins, anticoagulents and hemotoxins. Every species of rattlesnake injects a slightly different venom that helps immobilize their prey and begins the digestion process.
These remarkable creatures do great work in the environment, keeping a cap on surging populations of rodents, squirrels and rabbits. Beautifully camouflaged to blend into their habitat, rattlesnakes are graced with incredible adaptations that allow them to hunt even without limbs. In a few more months the snakes will be underground in hibernation and then I’ll go back to the rocky canyon.