Things Unseen – The Hidden World of Rattlesnakes

Things Unseen is a special series of posts to get you and the people where you live thinking about the unseen or under-appreciated wonders of the natural world and what lies beyond.  It is April 2020, and the world has become a very different place as a tiny virus makes its way across the planet.  At a time such as this, we are sobered and humbled by the fact that this vast universe holds much that is far beyond our understanding and certainly our control. Perhaps we are meant to enjoy and ponder it more, as well as the things that really matter in this life… things unseen.  Just a thought. What do you think? 

Western diamondback rattlesnakes are common in the Sonoran desert, known for their diamond shaped markings, striped tail and rattles made of keratin, the same material that your fingernails are made of.

Sonoran Desert, USA – At one time, snakes of any kind or size absolutely terrified me. Over the years, I have learned to tolerate them and even marvel at their scaly design. However, I must admit that even after several decades of living in the desert and many encounters with these slithery creatures, I still feel a tingle of horror creep up my spine when I watch them move. My brain tells me that they are an important part of our ecosystem, and that their presence helps to keep the ratio of creatures in healthy balance. But raw emotions implore me to scream and run.

Rattlesnakes pull into the classic coil or S loop to protect their long bodies and to get into the position to strike if necessary. On flat ground, rattlesnakes can only strike something that is one third to one half of their body distance away.

One of the many reasons rattlesnakes creep people out so much is the fact that they are a part of the rarely seen world… most of the time.  But it is spring and the warming desert ground triggers an underground alarm clock for all sleeping creatures to rouse themselves for a new season and begin the daily routines of hunting, resting and raising the next generation. So be warned. The snakes are out in full force.

Rattlesnakes winter in sheltered dens often in areas where large rocks provide protection.  Snakes can’t burrow for themselves, so rely on naturally occurring holes and crevices or burrows and tunnels made by other animals to find shelter and survive the cold months.  To share body heat, snakes will actually gather in dens and if it is really cold in an area with sparse winter food, many snakes will pile together in what is called a “ball.” As the ground warms in spring, they come out to warm up.

Snakes flick their tongues to pick up scent from potential prey or predator. Scent is carried on microscopic moisture particles in the air.

Where I am in the Sonoran Desert, the western diamondback rattlesnake is king and comes out of hibernation with a growling stomach and in no mood to patiently wait for a meal to meander by. They can be seen at unexpected times taking unexpected chances in their quest for food. Unlike some other rattlers, they have a tendency to hold their ground and rattle or hiss a warning rather than to flee.

This Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is the first one we saw this year. It seemed determined to move in our direction and when we made noise to get it to change course, it quickly moved into the brush and got into a coiled position facing us.

In all my encounters with them, rattlesnakes have been quite tolerant and if anything, coil up and deliver their classic rattle-tail warning to back off. Notoriously timid, they typically won’t strike unless they are cornered, threatened or startled, but trekkers should always remember that all wild animals, including rattlesnakes, can be very unpredictable. Most people who have been bitten by a rattlesnake either accidentally stepped on one or were intentionally trying to capture or antagonize the snake.

Two amorous rattlesnakes mating on my patio! A rare sight to see in the wild, the process went on for hours. Female rattlesnakes can actually store the male’s sperm for months and even years before bearing live snakelets.

If you are able to get close to one of these slithery creatures, you’ll find that the design of their bodies is incredible. Rows of orderly patterned scales cover the snake’s body perfectly and like a well fitting garment, allow the snake to move unencumbered. If you look really closely, you can see that each scale has a horizontal line through it. (known as keeled scales) This line causes the light to scatter in a way that makes the snake appear dull or matte, further enabling it to blend into things unseen.

As forbidding as they may seem, rattlesnakes are exquisite design wonders with an important job to do in our shared environment. Their presence prompts me to contemplate the delicate and complicated balance of things that are both dangerous and beneficial in nature.

When you trek into the land of things unseen, be watchful and mindful of who might be lurking along the path. You just might be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of those who live in the shadows.

WT LogoCultivate Wonder… Discover Design

(c) SPegany
Now faith is a well-grounded assurance of that for which we hope, and a conviction of the reality of things which we do not see. Hebrews 11:1

References and Resources

Images – SPegany 2020 unless otherwise noted

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

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