The rattlesnakes are a group of venomous snakes belonging to the genera Sistrurus and Crotalus. These genera in turn are part of the subfamily Crotalinae, or pit vipers. Thirty-two known species of rattlesnake exist, with between 65 to 70 subspecies. All these species are native to the Americas, and they range naturally from Southern Canada to Central Argentina.
Juvenile Pacific rattlesnake eating mouse. © NPS/Kristen Lalumiere.
A rattlesnake’s diet
In the main, rattlesnakes live on rodents, like mice, rats, gophers, and prairie dogs. They also eat other small animals, like lizards, and birds. Despite their scary reputation and appearance (as well as thatnoise), rattlesnakes play a very important ecological role, as they help to control the number of pest animals, especially rodents, that affect crops each year.
Rattlesnakes are efficient and patient predators
They lie in ambush for their dinner, or they go into holes and burrows if they’re desperate. They quickly dispatch their prey with a venomous bite, and they don’t constrict or squeeze their victims to death.
How do they hunt?
Northern Pacific rattlesnake eats a rabbit. © Mike Baird.
Rattlesnakes inject their venom into their prey through their hollow fangs, which act like hypodermic needles. Most snake venom are very complex compounds, consisting of proteins like hemotoxins, which destroy cells and tissues, or anticoagulants, which cause fatal internal bleeding. Some species use neurotoxins, which can cause paralysis, suffocation or heart attacks. The snake waits for, say, a mouse to pass by, then it strikes. A rattlesnake can strike at a distance of up to two thirds of the length of its body. Once the snake has bitten, it retreats, waiting for its venom to work. Once the prey animal is disabled, the snake uses its special heat-sensing organs to find its victim.
What does a rattlesnake do next?
Once it’s found its prey, the rattlesnake checks it over for signs of life, prodding the hapless creature with its snout and flicking its tongue over it. When the snake is reasonably certain its meal is dead, it finds the head by sniffing out the mouth (delightful). Then the prey is swallowed head first and whole. Snakes eat their prey head first because this means legs, wings and so forth fold up neatly and don’t bulk the snake out too much. The digestive fluids of snakes are very powerful, and are capable of digesting bones as well as flesh. The best digestion occurs when the snake’s temperature is between 25°C to 29°C. Depending on the size of the catch, the snake will either look for another victim, or it will find somewhere safe and warm to hole up and digest.
How about water?
It’s thought that rattlesnakes need at least their own body weight in water every year in order to stay hydrated. They adapt their method of drinking according to the nature of the water source. If the snake is drinking from a stream or a pond, it will submerge its head and open and close its jaw to gulp the water. If the snake is drinking from a small puddle, or is drinking dew, it uses capillary action to grab the water, or it will flatten its throat to allow water to flood into its lower jaw.
Learn more: What do various snakes eat?
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