The eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) is a pit viper common to the Southeastern United States. Its range falls primarily between Florida and the Carolinas; its preference is for dry, warm habitats such as palmetto flatwoods, scrub, pine woods and sandhills. While it may survive the winter in tree stumps and animal holes, the University of Georgia indicates that the eastern diamondback prefers shelter in abandoned gopher tortoise burrows.
At an average of 5 feet long and 5 pounds, with some recorded at 8 feet long and nearly 10 pounds, eastern diamondbacks are the largest rattlesnakes in the world and the heaviest in the Americas. They are distinguished by a dark repeating diamond pattern on top of beige or brown scales, surrounded by darker and lighter speckles. Their undersides are a light tan, golden or off-white color.
Each snake's tail terminates in a "rattle," a collection of hollow, modified scales known individually as beads, which are added each time the snake sheds its skin. Because rattlesnakes gain a new bead each time they shed their skin, it's commonly thought that the beads on a rattlesnake's tail can be used to determine how old it is. In fact, individual beads may become damaged or amputated, meaning rattles are usually not accurate indicators of a rattlesnake's age. Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are sexually dimorphic, meaning that males and females have distinguishable differences in appearance or behavior. Males tend to be larger than females, with longer, narrower tails.
Diet and Reproduction
Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes feed primarily on small mammals, including mice, rats, chipmunks, squirrels and rabbits, but have been known to eat birds and eggs.
Reproduction typically occurs in the spring; females produce eight to 24 young in the late summer or early fall. While female rattlesnakes appear to give birth to live young, eggs are simply incubated internally instead of laid in a nest. Young snakes, born fully venomous, hatch inside the mother's body. Once born, rattlesnakes immediately begin to fend for themselves.
Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are pit vipers, snakes that rely on heat-seeking sensors to detect prey. These sensors are distinguishable as pits between the animal's eyes, which do not blink, and nostrils, which cannot smell. As with all other snake species, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes smell with their forked tongues. A snake's tongue gathers scent particles and relays them to the Jacobson's organ, a sensory device on the roof of the mouth, allowing the animal to infer details about its environment. The eastern diamondback's pits provide additional information about the size and location of warm-blooded animals.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, eastern diamondback venom is a potent hemotoxin, meaning that it attacks and damages blood and tissue. Venom is delivered through the snake's hollow, inch-long fangs, resulting in a deep and painful bite. Envenomation may result in swelling, necrosis, hypotension and, in some cases, heart failure. If left untreated, complications and even death may occur. The availability of anti-venin, however, ensures that bites are rarely fatal.
As with most animals, rattlesnakes are wary of humans and prefer to flee than fight. National Geographic points out that most snakes bite when startled, cornered or handled, but will do so only as a last resort; venom production costs energy and is better preserved than used. As a warning, snakes will shake their "rattles" to create a loud and unmistakable rasping noise. If this warning is heeded, a rattlesnake will typically take the first opportunity to escape. Otherwise, the animal may bite. As fully coiled eastern diamondbacks may strike up to one-third their body length, it's best to give them as much space as possible.
While eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are common throughout their range, they are often killed by trophy hunters or humans fearful of snakes. Their habitat is threatened by increasing urbanization and human expansion, and they are commonly killed on highways or other busy roads. While the species is protected in North Carolina, where it is rarely seen, it is not considered threatened and receives no protection from the federal government. Ongoing education efforts aim to cultivate an appreciation for the rattlesnake's role in the ecosystem while emphasizing respect for its lethal potential.
- Photo Credit Photos by Charlotte Moore
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