Saturday, April 7, 2012

Slightly Rattled – The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Not everyone has the good fortune of seeing an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) in the wild and most are probably content to keep it that way. There’s also a vast difference between spotting one from a vehicle and having one slither across a path in front of you.

The Big Cypress National Preserve in the Western Everglades is home to four species of venomous snakes including the Eastern Diamondback (EDB). On a recent trip down an old logging road, I spotted a four and a half footer winding its way across the road. As I  approached it in the ecotour van, it coiled, rattled and decided to move on. As it slithered past, it raised its neck and head in an S-shape and retreated into the sawgrass prairie where it was lost to my eyes in a matter of seconds.

A few days later I was walking with friends in the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed in Collier County, FL. The area is primarily pine flatwoods with Slash Pines (Pinus elliottii), Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) and Cabbage Palms (Sabal palmetto) – perfect EDB habitat. Sliding silently through the underbrush and onto the path several feet in front of us was a massive rattler that without my tape measure I would estimate was nearly six feet long.

It continued on into a Saw Palmetto thicket, coiled up and watched us as we watched it. Rattlers can strike two thirds of their body length which would be about four feet. This means eight feet was as close as I needed to get. The buzz of its rattle validated that thought. EDBs don’t always rattle. Sometimes they remain silent to protect their location and in some cases the rattle may have fallen off.

EDBs are born with a segment at the end of their tail that will develop into a rattle. As snakes grow and scales need to be replaced, the old skin will shed, sometimes several times a year. During each shed, a new segment or “button” becomes loosely attached to the previous segment. The rattle is made of keratin, a fingernail-like substance that is equally fragile and susceptible to breaking over time. The number of segments does not indicate the age of the snake – the birthday does.

The smaller EDB in the top photo has six buttons including the original pear-shaped segment. The biggie in the bottom photos has ten buttons but the final segment is not the original. Either way the alarm system works.

Despite the close encounter on the trail, I was thrilled to have crossed paths with the EDB, even if slightly rattled. 

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