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"Please Dont Touch the Rattlesnakes!"By John LevellMonday, August 21, 2000

Rattlesnake! The single word most likely to elicit a response from those who live or play along the Root River State Trail, especially during these more temperate, pleasant and all too fleeting days of summer. In fact just about everyone, whether a long-time resident, newcomer or tourist, has some tale to tell or question to ask about the "much dreaded rattlers."

Of course, things are much the same throughout the United States where the Timber Rattler, our resident species, is just one of 30 or so rattlesnakes that may be found in all the contiguous lower 48 except Maine, Rhode Island and Delaware. Rattlesnakes, more specifically the aforementioned Timber Rattlesnake, historically occurred in at least 2 if not all 3 of these currently "rattler free" states as well.

As is the case around here, opinions regarding rattlesnakes, deservedly or not, are almost invariably bad. Fear, hatred, and loathing, due no doubt to the animals ability to deliver a painful, potentially dangerous and occasionally fatal bites, combined with hefty doses of misunderstanding have turned rattlesnakes into almost mythological "reptilian monsters" in the minds of humans everywhere.

Not surprisingly, much of what passes for common knowledge about rattlesnakes is far from accurate with a fair percentage of widely accepted "rattler facts" bordering on outright fiction. Rattlesnakes, for example, are not the primitive, unsophisticated holdouts from the dinosaurian era most High School biology classes would have us believe all reptiles to be. Instead, rattlesnakes are among the most highly specialized and successful animals existing on this planet.

Perhaps the most impressive evolutionary innovation of rattlesnakes is their venoms, potent chemical "cocktails" composed of numerous enzymes and toxins. Primarily digestive in nature, the principal function of these venoms is the capture of prey with actual chemical composition varying with the preferred food animals of each particular rattlesnake. Prey species are bitten, instantly injected with venom and then released to wander away and die, thereby significantly minimizing the risks of injury to the attacking snake. Rattlesnakes then use their forked tongues, super-sensitive scent detecting organs possessed by all snakes and some lizards, to precisely track stricken prey.

Venom is produced by specialized glands and is delivered by two large, hollow fangs situated in the front of the upper jaw that function much like paired hypodermic needles. Too long to fit inside the mouth when erected, these fangs come equipped with a hinge, which allows them to be folded upwards and back as the jaws are closed. These modified "retractable" fangs, a feature shared by all Vipers; helps differentiate rattlesnakes from other venomous species such as cobras and coral snakes in which the venom conducting teeth are immovable.

Further distinguishing rattlers from other snakes including the so-called True Vipers, are conspicuous "facial pits" located on either side of the head between the nostril and eye. Functioning much like infrared sensors, these pits detect minute environmental temperature differences and aid in the delivery of successful bites even in total darkness. The presence of these heat sensitive organs in rattlesnakes and related species has given rise to the common name Pit Vipers, a term applied to all 120 or so snakes of this family found worldwide.

Unlike rattlesnakes which are distinctly New World animals, other "rattle-less" Pit Vipers are broadly distributed throughout the temperate, sub-tropical, and tropical regions of extreme southeastern Europe, Asia, and in North, Central, and South America. Other North American species include the widespread Copperhead and Water Moccasin, neither of which incidentally occurs anywhere near Minnesota.

As the predominant venomous snakes on the continent, Pit Vipers inflict the vast majority of snakebites recorded annually in the United States. While toxicity levels vary widely, the toxins of virtually all North American Pit Vipers is at least potentially dangerous to humans. The Mojave Rattlesnake of the American southwest, is perhaps the "deadliest" species and possesses a fast acting, extremely potent venom that can kill in a matter of hours. The gigantic but fortunately relatively placid Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake of Florida and Georgia, as well as the irascible Western Diamondback Rattlesnake of the southwestern U.S. have likewise both been implicated in a number of human fatalities. Moccasins, Copperheads and some smaller rattlesnakes on the other hand, are generally considered incapable of delivering a lethal bite to an otherwise healthy human adult.

The Timber Rattlesnake, the only species likely to be encountered in the Bluffland region, falls somewhere in between these two extremes. While rare, human fatalities have been attributed to "Old Velvet-tail" including a young Wisconsin girl killed by a Timber bite in the mid 1980s.

It is important to remember, however, that the chances of dying from the bite of any rattlesnake is astronomically lower than the chances of being killed by a bolt of lightning. At the same time, fully 80 percent of all U.S. snakebites have been inflicted on individuals who in some way, shape or form willingly initiated contact with a venomous snake in the first place. In other words, being bitten by a rattler while on a stroll in the woods is a very remote possibility indeed.

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