There are few words that strike more fear in humans than the word ‘SNAKE!’, but ‘RATTLESNAKE!’ may be one of them. In Florida we have three species of rattlesnakes but when people talk of them they are generally speaking of the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus). The legends and stories of this animal are numerous. William Bartram mentioned this species many times in his Travels in 1774. He wrote about them while in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama… it made an impression on him. One story was during a time when he was living with the Seminole on what is now Payne’s Prairie near the town of Micanopy south of Gainesville. He was in the council house with the men of the tribe when the women and children came to him for help… there was a large rattlesnake in their garden; apparently the Seminole were terrified of this snake. Bartram, not knowing what the fuss was about at first, went to aid the women and discovered what he described as a large rattlesnake. He entered the garden and shot the animal. He was immediately declared a brave hero.
There are plenty of modern day stories of large rattlesnakes (8’+) in and around Pensacola but many believe that 8’ rattlesnakes no longer exist; encounters between rattlesnakes and humans usually mean death for the rattlesnake. One of the legends associated with the Eastern Diamondback is its large strike range. Ray Ashton states in his book Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida; Part I – the snakes, that the strike range is about 1/3 it’s length and that the well developed fangs can penetrate clothing and thin shoes. The stories, and herpetological accounts, suggest that when wandering into rattlesnake territory one should wear boots and protective clothing. One story I heard was of a man in north Santa Rosa County who was struck on his knee cap. He not only received a dose of venom but the power of the strike actually broke his knee cap!
The stories could go on but what is the truth about this animal? Ashton reports the record length of a Diamondback at 96” (8’). The bite is very dangerous. Hikers, deer hunters, loggers, farmers, or anyone else who may encounter this animal should take precautions (clothing, boots, etc.) to protect themselves and move through the brush with caution. According to snake bite guides if you are bitten you should remain calm, do not elevate the limb bitten, do not cut the bite or try to remove the venom, call 911, then the poison control hotline, and get to a hospital. You can better understand now why the Seminole were so afraid of this snake. In Bartum’s day they were probably plentiful, large, and had killed many members of the tribe. Eastern Diamondbacks are only found in the southeast United States. Ray Ashton and Whit Gibbons both report it in Florida, and the lower portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and even some of North Carolina; though it may no longer exist in LA. It feeds on rodents and rabbits and is found in longleaf pine forest, palmetto flatwoods, barrier islands, and high dry ground near wetlands were their prey can be found. They are ambush hunters and may lie under a palmetto for weeks waiting for prey to venture by. They are one of the known associates of the gopher tortoise burrow and can be found within them during extreme temperature days. Their venom is meant for prey – not predators, and sometimes the bite of this snake is a ‘dry-bite’ (no venom injected). Their behavior, when I have encountered them, is to remain hidden or move away. Any gesture towards them may be interpreted by the snake as aggressive and they may defend themselves; just let the snake be – REMEMBER MOST HUMANS BITTEN BY SNAKES ARE EITHER TRYING TO CATCH OR KILL IT.
The Canebrake, or Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), is one that has been mistaken for the Diamondback. There has been debate as to whether the canebrake and timber rattler are two different snakes or two names for the same species. In Ashton’s book (1981) it is listed as two different; with the Timber Rattlesnake living in the upland areas while the Canebrake lives in the wetlands. In Gibbons and Dorcas book (2005) it is listed as two names for the same snake. David Steen, a snake specialist from Virginia Tech, states that the official stand on the topic at the moment is they are the same snake and the accepted name is “timber rattlesnake”. This guy is quite common north of coastal plain in the Piedmont and Appalachian areas. Records of the animal in the coastal plain are found in all of the southern states except Florida. Ashton lists the animals range in Florida near the SuwanneeRiver basin with museum records in 8 counties in that area. Gibbons and Dorcas include the Apalachicola River basin in their range map. Neither author has any records from the Northwest Florida area but I have heard locals from the north ends of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties use the term “timber rattler” when describing snakes they have seen; maybe, maybe not – it could be a mistake in identification. Identification of the two species (Timber vs. Eastern Diamondback) is relatively easy. The Timber has dark ‘chevron’ stripes across its back in lieu of the ‘diamond’ pattern seen on the Diamondback The Timber also has a rusty-orange stripe along the mid-line of their back. A third character is the Timber’s tail region is solid black. This species differs from Diamondbacks in that they tend to congregate in rock areas in the mountainous parts of their range during winter hibernations and when females give birth. They also seem more reluctant to strike and many times do not rattle. They are similar to the Eastern Diamondback in size and prey selection, consuming rodents but preferring rabbits.
For the most part, only locals have heard of the third species of Florida rattlesnakes; the Pygmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius). This is a smaller version of their cousins (maximum length of 2’) and it is said that the rattle sounds more like a buzzing insect. Because of this, and their selection of habitat, it has been said that more folks are bitten by this species than the other two. In Ashton’s 1981 account of this snake he describes it as “pugnacious” and very willing to strike. Gibbons and Dorcas’ 2005 account describes a snake that will remain silent until detected, then coiling to strike but rarely doing so. I have only encountered two; one was during a snake survey we were doing in north Santa
Rosa County – the animal had entered our snake trap… it was coiled ready to strike but did not rattle. Using a snake tong – we removed and released it. It did strike the tongs a couple of times but I never heard the rattle-sound. The other encounter was from the photo in this article. This animal was crossing the road late in the afternoon and was not bothered by us at all. We actually thought it was dead when we first saw it. Only after getting out of the car to examine it did we realize it was still alive… no aggressive behavior was observed. From our work with upland turtles we have heard from many that this is quite a common snake. Nature explorers should be dressed appropriately and use hiking sticks when probing bushes and underbrush – not their hands.
The threats to this animal are obvious… see a rattlesnake… kill a rattlesnake. There are certainly times when the presence of a rattlesnake can be a problem. One in the yard where pets and children often play could be disastrous. The most common next move would be to try and kill the animal; but remember MOST ARE BITTEN WHEN TRYING TO CATCH OR KILL SNAKES. If the animal can be driven off this may be the safest for both you and the snake. However, the snake entered the yard for a reason – more likely rats or mice. So identifying and removing the reason may eliminate future encounters. The habitat of stopping a car when seeing one on the side of a highway and trying to kill it does not make any sense at all. Remember snakes, including rattlesnakes, do a good service for us by removing large numbers of unwanted disease caring rodents. If the animal is not threatening and in a position to do someone harm; leave it alone. Members of several reptile conservation organizations are concerned about the “Rattlesnake Roundups”. I have heard Dr. Bruce Means (FSU) speak on this topic many times. Some of the regional roundups have gone to a more “wildlife friendly” version of the event and are now promoting snake education and conservation BUT still making money. There are still a few of the old “wild-west” versions of this event and we hope they will consider changing their format. There is evidence that these are significantly decreasing snake populations and, again, we do need these guys in our environment. The story is similar to that of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. When in their world, understand their behavior and be aware. They certainly do not seek people out – bad encounters can be avoided with a little insight and precaution. They are wonderful animals and should be enjoyed.