Rattlesnakes: Fact or Fiction?

An experience with a snakebitten mountain biker led?Gale Bernhardt?to investigate the truth behind some common misconceptions about rattlesnakes.

Take this short quiz to find out how much you know, then scroll down to reveal the answers.

FACT or FICTION?

  • A rattlesnake can bite when beheaded.
  • A rattlesnake will always sound the rattle before striking.
  • A rattlesnake cannot detect a person on a bicycle and will not strike a bike rider. (Ok, this is a gimme.)
  • Snakes are most active in the early mornings on spring and summer days when the sun is warming the earth.
  • Snakes turn in for the evening, sleeping at night.
  • Rattlesnakes can only bite from a coiled position.
  • When someone gets bitten by a snake, immediately apply a tourniquet above the bite and ice it.

Answers

  • A rattlesnake can bite when beheaded.
    Yes, a rattlesnake can bite when beheaded. One theory is that the pit sense organ triggers an automatic response to temperature difference for some period of time after the head has been removed from the snake. In the summer of 2007 a beheaded snake sent a Yakima, Washington, man to the hospital.
  • A rattlesnake will always sound the rattle before striking.
    Fiction.
  • A rattlesnake cannot detect a person on a bicycle and will not strike a bike rider.
    Not true. The mountain biker I called 911 for had been bitten by a snake while riding.
  • Snakes are most active in the early mornings on spring and summer days when the sun is warming the earth.
    Snakes are most active when temperatures are within their optimal basking range. This appears to be about 75 degrees F with cool ground and the sun shining. They seldom bask when air temperatures are below 55 degrees F.

    If, however, they are involved in the primary chores of mating or getting food, they will endure sub-optimal temperatures.
  • Snakes turn in for the evening, sleeping at night.
    Not true. Rattlesnakes are more nocturnal in the heat of summer than in the spring or fall. Desert rattlers are more nocturnal than those living in heavy brush or humid areas. Adult rattlesnakes are more nocturnal than juveniles.

    In most areas, young rattlesnakes are born between August 1 and October 15, centering in mid-September. Juveniles are inexperienced and can be seen careless of concealment and roaming around regardless of time or temperature.
  • Rattlesnakes can only bite from a coiled position.
    Fiction. A rattlesnake can bite from any position it pleases. It can simply turn its head, then open and close its mouth to deliver a bite. Biting ability is sometimes confused with striking.

    This distance from which a rattlesnake can deliver a strike depends on several conditions. These include the size of the snake, position of the snake, body temperature, the species and the degree of excitement.

    Estimates of distance a snake can strike from the coiled position are some one-third to three-quarters of the length of the snake. One source says rattlers will seldom strike more than half of their body length and almost never beyond three quarters.

    It is best not to risk your snake length-estimating ability and give any rattler a wide berth.
  • When someone gets bitten by a snake, immediately apply a tourniquet above the bite and ice it.
    Fiction. We've all watched western or desert adventure movies where the snake-bitten victim receives a tourniquet from well-meaning buddies. More recently, caretakers have iced the bite and others have had the person elevate the injured body part. None of these are good ideas.

From Colorado State University Extension, First Aid for Snake Bites Recommended By the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center:

  1. Remain calm so as not to increase circulation and thus the spread of the venom.
  2. Immediately remove anything from the body that may cause increased swelling below the bite area (i.e., rings, watch, shoes, tight clothing, etc.)
  3. If possible, wash the wound with soap and water. If available, a Sawyer Extractor Pump may be used to remove some of the venom. Be familiar with the procedure and instructions before you need to use it.
  4. Immobilize the bite area, keeping it in a neutral to below the heart position.
  5. Get to the hospital immediately. Do not wait for the pain to get severe. The use of approved antivenom is the most effective treatment for envenomation. If possible, have another person drive, and call ahead to the hospital and the poison center.

What NOT To Do:

  • Do not use a tourniquet.
  • Do not make an incision at the bite site.
  • Do not suck out the venom with your mouth as this may increase the risk of infection.
  • Do not pack the limb in ice.
  • Do not elevate the limb above the heart.

Reference and Links

  1. American Rattlesnake Museum
  2. Colorado State University, Coping with Snakes
  3. Desert USA Rattlesnakes
  4. Klauber, L., Rattlesnakes. Their Habits, Life Histories & Influence on Mankind, University of California Press, 1982
  5. Rattlesnakes, A Species Photo Index

Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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