Feared rattlesnake serves useful purpose in Florida

The eastern diamondback is the largest type of rattlesnake.

Spinning tales about the rattlesnake. From deserts to woodlands, the rattlesnake, native to the Americas, is a feared reptile.

Yet, it was symbolic during the revolutionary years — the legendary Gadsden flag displayed a coiled rattlesnake above the warning "DON’T TREAD ON ME."

Characteristic is the diamond-shaped head and thick body. Overlapping keeled (ridged) scales protect from dehydration and trauma, and patterns provide camouflage. The offspring is similar.

As a pit viper, the rattlesnake has a heat-sensing pit between each eye and nostril which detects the body heat of prey — rodents, rabbits and birds. Incapacitated with venom, prey is usually ingested headfirst. Adults often feed at two-week intervals.

Reproduction generally occurs every three years with up to 12 babies. This snake is ovoviviparous: eggs are hatched inside the female and the young are born live. A newborn is encased in a membrane, which it soon perforates. Longevity spans 15 to 20 years.

Absolutely, the rattlesnake prefers retreat to confrontation. When cornered, it warns with simultaneous coiling, rattling and hissing before striking at a speed of half a second. It may strike twice. The victim’s circulatory system is jeopardized. Survival depends on the amount and potency of venom and timely treatment with antivenin (antivenom).

Insistent "buzzing" should be heeded on nature trails or rocky surfaces, ideal for this cold-blooded creature to bask.

Its rattle features hollow ring segments of keratin, the same material as fingernails. A new segment appears with each shedding — several times yearly for the expanding juvenile and sometimes less than once yearly for the adult. Rattles cannot depict age since some fall off.

To avoid indiscriminate slaughter, some snakes supposedly tend not to rattle.

Some are evolving with atrophied tail muscles or with no rattles. Nevertheless, yearly roundups slaughter thousands of rattlers.

A baby rattler does not have a rattle, just a pre-button. It cannot alert, but its potent venom can harm, especially children. With first shedding around two weeks, a rattle segment appears.

Of possibly 36 rattlesnake species, three inhabit Florida. The eastern diamondback, the largest rattlesnake, can reach 8 feet and weigh 10 pounds. Coloration may be brown, tan or yellow and patterned with diamonds. It is fast and also swims.

The timber rattlesnake inhabits northern Florida, where it often is identified as the canebrake. Length can exceed 6 feet. Coloration is pale grayish brown to pinkish buff, with dark cross bands (chevrons) and a stripe down the back. In northern states, it is called the timber and coloration is darker. (Taxonomists consider the timber and canebrake as the timber species.) This snake hides in piles of rotten "timber." Similar, the timber and eastern diamondback often are confused.

The dusky pigmy rattlesnake averages 1 foot. Coloration is light to dark gray with black blotches. Feisty, it delivers more snakebites than other snakes. Rarely fatal, its painful bite can destroy a finger. Warning is a weak buzzing-insect rattle, but this snake might remain motionless. Ubiquitous, it slithers across a backyard or coils in a potted plant in a garden nursery. A coiled newborn is the size of a quarter.

Depending on temperature, rattlesnakes experience brumation or hibernation — experts cannot agree. It is a lethargic period. In Florida, rattlesnakes are active most of the year. During temporary cold periods, the pigmy might just go undercover. The bigger rattlers might choose gopher tortoise burrows, hollow logs or stump holes.

In colder climates, a rattlesnake den (hibernaculum), such as a rocky crevice or cave, can entertain a dozen to several hundred snakes. Mixed species might gather — like the timber and the copperhead. The den is commonly reused yearly.

Hopefully, the rattlesnake will someday be acknowledged for its benefits. Besides controlling rodents, its venom is used in stroke, cancer and heart disease research. It is another indispensable creature!