Fact or Fiction: A rattlesnake can bite after being beheaded. Click on the link at the bottom of the article to find out.

I had a personal experience just a few weeks ago that spurred me to write this column. I was heading out on one of my favorite trails at about 9 a.m. for a mountain-bike ride when I met a man pushing his mountain bike. "I think I need to call 911. I've been bitten by a rattlesnake," he said.

A couple of us took action and got the man help from local emergency personnel. Best we know, he received treatment and is now ok.

While we were waiting for emergency help to arrive at the trailhead, I asked the fellow what happened. He told me he saw the snake laying on the trail but thought he could ride past without getting bitten. I assume the man thought his limbs would be located too high or he would be moving too fast for a snake to bite him. Definitely not true.

Chatting with several people following the experience, I found there are many misconceptions about rattlesnakes. Because they are found in all but about four states, active, multi-sport athletes should know more about this pit viper that shares trails and territory with many of us.

Pit Vipers

Rattlesnakes have the distinguishing characteristic of possessing rattles on their tails. Rattlesnakes are members of the pit viper family, so called because of the remarkable sense organ located below and behind their nostrils. These pits, one on each side, are visible externally as small facial openings.

The purpose of the pits is to act as temperature-differential receptors. This enables the snake to detect the direction of objects, such as birds or small mammals, having higher temperatures than their surroundings.

In experiments, snakes were able to detect a heated lamp at a distance that produced a temperature less than half a degree Fahrenheit above the surrounding air. The maximum recognition distance was estimated at about 14 inches.

The Rattle

The primary purpose of the rattle is to act as a warning mechanism. This is intended to drive away creatures that might harm the snake. It is definitely not an altruistic warning to the intruder for the intruder's protection.

Sight, Vibration and Smell

If the pit sensitivity is well under two feet, how is it that rattlesnakes can begin rattling when intruders are approaching from quite a distance away?

There is some disagreement on the distance that a snake can detect motion by vision. At least one source says his experiments indicate that rattlers can detect motion, by vision alone, to distances of at least 15 feet.

If a rattler's vision is obstructed by a rock or other object, the snake has still been known to warn an intruder with its rattle. Because rattlers are deaf to airborne vibrations (they lack external ears) the rattler cannot hear the approaching intruder. However, there is evidence that ground vibrations or the sense of smell are early alerts for these snakes, though the distance a snake can detect an intruder this way is not clear.?

Optimal Temperatures

Rattlesnakes, like other reptiles, are dependent on external heating to help regulate their body temperatures. The optimal operating body temperature (not air temperature) for the rattlesnake is between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. A snake's daily and seasonal habits are strongly influenced by the temperature of their environment.

A popular thought is that snakes love to bask in the sun whenever possible and in the highest heat of the day. The reality is that they limit their basking to more moderate temperatures.

A favorite location that snakes enjoy is the shade of a bush located next to a sunny trail. The snake can move itself in and out of the shade to regulate body temperature. Unfortunately, this location is also prime sniffing territory for dogs accompanying their human companions.

The Bite

While some believe an attack is a bite and others view it as a stab, it will always cause the victim pain. Some bites are "dry," where no venom is released. Venom is how rattlesnakes disable their prey, rather than constricting.

When venom is released, the potential danger to a human victim depends on many factors, including: how much venom was released, the physical health of the victim, the location of the bite, the time between the bite and emergency care, the allergic reaction of the individual, and the emotional response of the victim, to name a few.

Can't We Just Get Along?

The American Rattlesnake Museum says that "in the United States, humans experience about 8,000 bites from venomous snakes each year. Of those, an average of 12 per year--less than one percent--result in death. Far more people die each year from bee stings, lightning strikes or almost any other reason. Incidentally, one-third of all rattlesnake bites are dry bites, when no venom has been injected."

When you are on the trails and in rattlesnake territory, keep your eyes open for snakes on the trail, near rock outcroppings and beneath bushes. Keep pets on a leash and watch where they put their nose to sniff.

When you do see a rattlesnake, do not aggravate it with sticks or rocks, getting it angry to greet the next human on the trail. Maneuver around the snake, giving it plenty of room.

As we head into the rattlesnake's home ground for recreation, it is important to remember that the rattlesnake plays an important role in the food chain. Investigate the habits of snakes particular to your area so we can all share the trails safely.

Now test your knowledge of rattlesnakes with our Fact or Fiction quiz.

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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