12 Things You Should Know About Rattlesnakes

johnaudrey, iStock/Getty Images Plus
johnaudrey, iStock/Getty Images Plus

Coiled defensively, its head reared and tail vibrating, a threatened rattlesnake commands respect. These venomous serpents have evolved one of nature’s most dramatic warning systems in their signature segmented rattles. But as we’ll see, their powerful bites are not the only thing rattlesnakes have going for them.

1. Rattlesnake scientific names refer to musical instruments.

All 36 species of rattlesnake are native to the Americas, with an overall range stretching from southern Canada to central Argentina and concentrated in the American Southwest. They can survive in all kinds of habitats where their prey—birds, rodents, amphibians, and other small animals—is plentiful. Rattlesnakes belong to two genera in the subfamily Crotalinae (the pit vipers): Crotalus, from the Greek word for castanet; and Sistrurus, invoking an ancient Egyptian musical instrument. Both genus names undoubtedly refer to the snakes’ characteristic rattles.

2. Venoms in rattlesnake bites are highly variable—even among members of the same species.

Each type of rattlesnake bite venom out there is an intricate cocktail loaded with different enzymes, toxins, and other compounds. Hemotoxins, which break down capillary walls and hinder blood circulation, are key ingredients in most of them. Neurotoxins, which attack the victim’s nervous system and cause seizures or paralysis, are another weapon. Venom composition can be extremely variable among individuals of the same species; for example, some timber rattlesnakes living in the American South have more neurotoxic venom than their northern counterparts do.

3. Rattlesnakes bite with movable fangs.

Cobras, mambas, and other snakes inject their venom into their victims through a pair of proteroglyphous, or fixed, fangs near the front of their mouths. Those snakes have to bite down and hang on to their prey to deliver the venomous punch. Rattlesnakes take a different approach. Like copperheads and Old World vipers, they have solenoglyphous fangs, which can actually swing forward and allow the rattlers to strike quickly, inject venom, and then back off. When the fangs aren’t being used, they’re pulled back and pressed against the roof of the snakes’ mouths.

4. Most rattlesnake bites are not fatal.

Rattlesnakes are the leading purveyor of venomous snakebites in North America. About 7000 to 8000 people are bitten each year, but thanks to effective antivenins, only five or six bites prove fatal.

5. Disembodied rattlesnake heads can still bite.

In 2018, a man in Corpus Christi, Texas found a western diamondback rattlesnake in his backyard and decapitated it with a shovel. Imagine his surprise when the head bit him on the hand. The man lived, but there have been cases of detached heads fatally envenomating people; the biting reflex in many venomous snakes remains active after the animal’s death.

6. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest venomous snake in North America.

Native to the southeastern U.S., the eastern diamondback can grow nearly 8 feet long and weigh more than 15 pounds. It’s the largest rattlesnake on Earth and the biggest venomous snake on the North American continent.

7. Rattlesnakes start growing rattles after their first shed.

Each rattlesnake is born with a nubby scale at the tip of its tail called a pre-button. After the snake’s first shed of their skin, the pre-button gets replaced with a button, a larger, hourglass-shaped scale. Later sheds add hollow, interlocking segments of keratin to the end of the tail. By vibrating the segments, the snakes create its distinctive rattling noise. Although it’s a myth that rattlesnakes must vibrate their tails before striking, they do use their rattles to warn approaching animals or people.

8. The number of rattle segments has nothing to do with the rattlesnake’s age.

A popular myth suggests that each rattle section represents a year in the animal’s life. In reality, a rattlesnake can shed multiple times, and gain multiple rattle segments, in a single year. Segments can also wear down and break off over time.

9. Rattlesnakes don’t lay eggs.

Like anacondas, rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous: They produce eggs that hatch inside their bodies and give birth to live, fully formed young. Depending on the species, a rattlesnake litter can include anywhere from one to 25 infants.

10. Not every rattlesnake species has a rattle.

Crotalus catalinensis, the Santa Catalina rattlesnake, has evolved to be rattle-free. It lives on Isla Santa Catalina, a small island in the Gulf of California. Although it belongs to the same genus as diamondbacks and timber rattlers, the snakes’ ancestors may have lost their appendages because there are fewer predators and big, trample-y mammals on the island to warn with menacing noises.

11. Rattlesnakes help plants by distributing seeds.

In a 2018 study, researchers looked into the guts of 50 dead rattlesnakes preserved at museums. They found 971 plant seeds that were likely carried by the rodents the snakes had eaten. When a rattlesnake devours some hapless mouse, the seeds it carried in its cheek pouches make their way through the snake’s digestive tract intact. By pooping out the seeds, the snakes help to restore plant growth in its habitat.

12. Benjamin Franklin admired timber rattlers.

Benjamin Franklin thought that rattlesnakes embodied uniquely American diplomacy and toughness. “She never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her,” he wrote in a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1775. “Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?”

He also noted that, like all snakes, timber rattlers don’t have eyelids, which made them naturally watchful. “She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance,” Franklin wrote.

Rattlesnakes later became symbols of America’s war for independence. Christopher Gadsden, a colonel from South Carolina, designed a personal flag to be flown on five ships belonging to the Continental Army. The bright yellow banner sported a coiled rattlesnake emblem and the caption “Don’t Tread on Me.” It remains popular among advocates of smaller federal government today.

A Same-Sex Penguin Couple Has Adopted an Egg at a Berlin Zoo

LisaStratchan/iStock via Getty Images
LisaStratchan/iStock via Getty Images

At first glance, king penguins Skip and Ping don’t appear to be too remarkable a sight when viewed by spectators at their enclosure at Germany's Zoo Berlin. But look closer and you may see one of them nurturing an egg under one of their skin folds. Skip and Ping, a same-sex penguin couple, have effectively adopted an egg and hope to raise it as their own baby.

A story by writer Liam Stack in The New York Times details their pursuit of parenthood. According to Stack, the penguins arrived at Zoo Berlin in April and were observed to have a degree of baby fever, trying to coddle everything from a rock to a fish. Taking note of their coupling, zookeepers passed on an unhatched egg laid by a female at the zoo. They immediately took to it, taking protective measures and growing ornery when employees got too close. Ping has taken to sitting on the egg in the hopes it will hatch.

That’s not guaranteed. Zookeepers aren't certain whether the egg was fertilized. If it is, it’s likely to crack open in early September, giving Skip and Ping an opportunity to expand their family.

Earlier this year, a same-sex penguin pair named Sphen and Magic began rearing a chick in Australia’s Sea Life Sydney Aquarium. The doting parents sang to and fed their adoptive offspring.

[h/t The New York Times]

Airlines Are No Longer Allowed to Ban Service Dogs Based on Breed

chaivit/iStock via Getty Images
chaivit/iStock via Getty Images

As the species of service and emotional support animals have become more diverse, airlines have had to make some tough decisions. Birds, monkeys, and snakes have been barred from boarding airplanes with passengers, but even more conventional pets like dogs have been rejected based on their breed. A new rule from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) aims to change that. As Travel + Leisure reports, the agency now forbids airlines from discriminating against service dogs of particular breeds, including pit bulls.

Last year, Delta banned all pit bulls from flying, regardless of whether or not they were certified therapy animals. United Airlines also banned pit bulls last year, along with 20 other dog breeds, including pugs, bulldogs, mastiffs, and shih tzus.

Under the new DOT guidelines, these policies are no longer legal. The statement reads: "The Department’s Enforcement Office views a limitation based exclusively on breed of the service animal to not be allowed under its service animal regulation. The Enforcement Office intends to use available resources to ensure that dogs as a species are accepted for transport."

The new rule applies specifically to service animals, or animals that have been trained to perform a job that's essential to their owner's wellbeing. Emotional support animals, which don't require special training and aren't covered by the Americans With Disabilities Act, don't qualify.

Even if a pet is a certified service animal, airlines still have the right to reject them in certain cases. Air travel companies can request documents related to an animal's vaccination, training, or behavior history. If they find anything in the papers that indicates they're not safe to fly, airlines can turn them away on that basis.

In the same statement, the Department of Transportation clarifies which species of service animals should be allowed on flights. Miniature horses are now included on the list of service animals airlines must allow to fly, while ferrets, rodents, snakes, reptiles, and spiders are the only species airlines can ban outright.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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