Endangered Species Report #34
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
Written by: Holly L. Koppel
Endangered Species Report #34: The Misunderstood Rattlesnake By: Holly L. Koppel Snakes are quite possibly one of the most feared and hated of all species, with perhaps the exception of rats and cockroaches. Unfortunately, most of the fear that people have of snakes is unfounded, as they would rather not have anything to do with humans. Still, the stigma of the rattlesnake lying in wait for an unsuspecting human victim remains today, and has helped push the eastern diamondback rattlesnake towards the endangered species list.
As of right now, the eastern diamondback is only listed as a species of "special concern" in states such as North Carolina and Alabama; however, no official listings have been made. The eastern diamondback is also being considered for inclusion in CITES because of how illegal trade is endangering this species. In many states, the eastern diamondback is not considered a species of concern, even though they are not as common as they once were.
There are two major threats to the eastern diamondback, the first being the loss of habitat to suburban and agricultural uses. The diamondback prefers areas of dry uplands, and scrub forests, but occasionally can be found in swamps when the water level is low. The diamondback used to reside in the longleaf pine forests of the Deep South; however, only 2% of these forests remain. Since so much of their habitat has been destroyed, the diamondback has had to adapt to new habitat. This habitat is mostly new pine forests, vacant lots, and abandoned fields. Living in these new habitats, especially the vacant lots, has unfortunately led to dangerous encounters with humans.
Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are an ambush predator. They will lie under cover in a tight coil and wait for their prey to pass by. Once the prey passes by (usually a rabbit, mouse, or rat), the snake will strike at it, injecting its venom. Eastern diamondback snake strikes have been documented at speeds of 175 mph! Once the prey has been bitten once, the snake retreats letting the animal crawl away to die. Once the animal has died, the snake comes out of hiding to feast.
These snakes are usually solitary except during mating season when the males must fight for dominance to win the females. The males compete for females in combat by raising up on their front section and throwing the weaker snake to the ground. After mating, the female will give birth to a dozen live babies in about six or seven months. The young are born in burrows usually made by gopher tortoises or sometimes hollow logs . At birth, the snakes are about 15 inches long, but will grow up to 4-5 feet in length and weigh about 4-5 lbs. when fully grown. Without interference from humans, these snakes can live up to 20 years as they have no natural predators.
This brings us to the second big threat to the survival of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake-fatalities due to human interference. Since people seem to have a natural fear of snakes, some will kill a snake when they first encounter one, instead of leaving it alone. However, if unprovoked, most snakes are reluctant to strike a human. But people have come up with ways to find an easy death at the hands of a rattlesnake at annual events that are held throughout the U.S. called "rattlesnake roundups."
There are four major rattlesnake roundups held annually in the southeast, and almost a dozen more held throughout the rest of the United States. These roundups utilize more than 300 wild caught rattlesnakes. How the rattlesnakes are caught for these roundups is almost as cruel as how they are used in the events. Rattlesnakes are caught by being driven out of their den sites with gasoline and other toxic chemicals which is not only dangerous for the rattlesnake inside, but to other wildlife because this renders the den unusable for at least two years. Also, the gasoline and other toxins will leak into the soil and water causing more problems not only for wildlife, but for humans as well. Once caught, these snakes are transported to the event sites in squalid conditions and often arrive starved, dehydrated, or crushed to death.
The survivors are used in public displays and daredevil acts then are eventually decapitated, skinned, and sold to the public. Some of the events at these round ups include sacking events and daredevil shows. The sacking event consists of teams of two people who chase after the snakes and jam them into a bag held by the other team member. A cash prize is usually offered to the one who picks up the most snakes in the shortest amount of time. This is where the most snake bites occur, but luckily for the people doing this, there is also an area of the event where people are milking the venom out of the snake for use in antivenom before the snake is killed.
In the daredevil shows, the daredevils will glamorize extremely unsafe practices with snakes. Common displays include harassing the snake until it gets into a defensive position, and then picking up the snake with their bare hands and placing it atop of their head! Another common display is for a handler to get inside a sleeping bag full of rattlesnakes and then the bag is then roughly shaken or stomped on. These shows are unfortunately billed as "safety talks" despite the fact that they demonstrate unsafe practices that could result in death for the handler.
Things have gotten a little bit better with these roundups since they first started in the 1920's. Some of the events that have been discontinued were stomping contests, and rattlesnake shoots. Organizers of these events claim that the roundups help rid range and timberlands of a threat to humans and livestock, though countless scientific studies have shown that livestock are very rarely bitten by rattlesnakes. In reality, these roundups encourage overexploitation of wildlife and condone cruelty to wildlife as an acceptable practice. Scientists are currently studying what the effects of these roundups have on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake population.
Despite what state and local governments think, the eastern diamondback and its other rattlesnake cousins are in danger, and need protection. Attempts to list this species as a protected species has so far been unsuccessful, mostly because of their unpopularity with the public. To ensure this species receives the protection it needs, people must be educated in this species' habits, and their habitat must be preserved. Also, we must continue to try and stop the rattlesnake roundups by making such practices illegal and showing children the consequences of cruelty to animals.
Animal Diversity--Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
Diamondback Rattlesnake--An Uncertain Future
Utah's Hogle Zoo: Eastern Diamondback
Sweet Water, TX Rattlesnake Roundup Editoral
The Reality of Rattlesnake Roundups
Humane Society Rattlesnake Roundup Info