The first time I ever heard this sound I was when I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. It was in the beginning of my hike and a rare moment when I was hiking with my brother. He was a few minutes ahead of me and suddenly came rushing back to say, “Come on! You’ve got to see this.” I rushed forward with him wondering the cause of the excitement.
I heard the noise first, but didn’t immediately see the source. And still, I didn’t know what it was, having never heard the sound before. At first I thought cicada–a kind of insect that makes a loud buzzing noise. But no, it wasn’t that.
When I finally saw the rattlesnake, I was thrilled because even after all of my time spent outside in the woods, I had never seen one! This one was in the middle of the trail and firmly standing his ground, making it clear we were going to have to move around him rather than the other way around.
Rattlesnakes–Crotalus horridus– are pit vipers and venomous. But contrary to popular belief, they are not usually aggressive and prefer to just be left alone. Of course since they are venomous, you should do your best to keep your distance if you see one, giving them plenty of space so they don’t feel threatened. In my 5+ months hiking the AT I saw 10 rattlesnakes but only one of them rattled its tail. The others slowly moved away, disappearing silently in the vegetation beside the trail. Most people who get bitten by them accidentally step on them so watch where you’re going!
Their rattles are made of keratin–the same material as your fingernails. The segments of keratin fit loosely inside one another at the end of their tails. When the snake holds its tail vertically, it can vibrate the rattles to create the sound. Each time the shed their skin– roughly every 1.4 years–a new segment is added to the rattle though counting the number of rattles doesn’t necessarily tell you the age of the snake as the rattles often break off.
Do you know how long rattlesnakes live or why they are endangered in many locations? Check back next week to learn more about these fascinating animals. (And for those of you really paying attention, I did forgot to feature the chipmunk last week so I will do that one soon too.)
Here is the next puzzler.