Rattlesnakes are venomous snakes that inject poison using their fangs. This is to disable and kill their prey so that the snake can then eat. They also use their fangs to protect themselves against attack. The fact that rattlesnakes are poisonous makes them creatures to be feared by human beings.
There are 15 species of rattlesnake in North America:
- Black-tailed rattlesnake
- Eastern diamondback rattlesnake
- Mojave rattlesnake
- Pygmy rattlesnake
- Red diamond rattlesnake
- Ridge-nosed rattlesnake
- Rock rattlesnake
- Sidewinder rattlesnake
- Speckled rattlesnake
- Tiger rattlesnake
- Timber rattlesnake
- Twin-spotted rattlesnake
- Western rattlesnake
- Western diamond rattlesnake
The venom that rattlesnakes inject differs from that injected by other species of snakes. It can damage blood cells and tissue, resulting in hemorrhaging, organ damage and failure, and ultimately death.
Rattlesnakes are pit vipers. There are two genera of viper in the United States. The first is the genus Agkistrodon. Two snakes comprise this genus: the Copperhead and the Cottonmouth. I have included these at the end of this article.
The other genus of viper found in the U.S. is genus Crotalus – the rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes are so-called because they warn predators off by using a rattle at the end of their tails.
The black-tailed rattlesnake is a medium-sized species that ranges from 30 to 42 inches in length. True to their name, they can be recognized by their black tail scales. This is extremely handy as their body colors can range from brown, black, greens, and yellows.
The black-tailed rattlesnake can be found in Central Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in the U.S. They can also be found in Mexico.
They can be seen moving straight forward or sidewinding. They are terrestrial rattlesnakes, although they can swim. They can be found in deserts, grasslands, mountainous regions, and rocky areas. They have been found at altitudes up to 6900 feet.
They are docile rattlesnakes and will only rattle when cornered. Bites are pretty rare, although they have larger venom glands than most other rattlesnakes. However, this is due to the toxicity of the venom, which is less toxic and generally not fatal to humans.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
The largest rattlesnake is the Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake, reaching eight feet in length. It is not only the largest in the U.S. but also the largest rattlesnake in the world. It boasts the largest fangs and the most potent venom.
Eastern Diamondbacks have an easily recognizable diamond pattern along their length, with each diamond being bordered by light-colored scales. Their range is modest compared to some other rattlesnakes, limited to Florida and the coastal area to the north.
The massasauga lives in North America and can be found throughout Canada and the Midwestern United States. It has a diamond-shaped head, which helps it track prey and capture them with its jaws.
The massasauga is a small rattlesnake that lives in the Great Lakes region of North America. They can be found in Ontario and from New York down to Arizona. The snake has an average length of about 23 inches, although they have been known to grow up to almost double on rare occasions.
They are a grey or tan color with a row down its back of rounded brown or black spots or blotches. They have three smaller rows of dots on either side of the large spots. Young snakes are paler than adults. Along with pygmy rattlesnakes, the massasauga has nine larger scales on top of their heads rather than many small ones.
Mojave rattlesnakes are among the most dangerous snakes in North America and are highly venomous. Their venom is known to be one of the most deadly venoms to humans.
They are found across southern California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, where they can be seen sunning themselves on rocks or hunting rodents. The Mojave Rattlesnake is a pit viper species with two venomous glands at the rear of its head between its eye and nostril.
The Mojave Rattlesnake is an impressive animal with a large body between two and four feet. Although known as the Mojave rattlesnake, much of their range is outside the Mojave desert.
Their color ranges from light green and brown to dark gray or black, with dark diamond markings on their back.
Their diet consists primarily of rodents that hunt down by moving across the ground using sidewinding movements or climbing into bushes and other low vegetation.
The pygmy rattlesnake is related to the more well-known diamondback and can be found in Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Oklahoma.
As their name suggests, they are small snakes with slender bodies that grow to about two feet. Their coloration is usually brown or gray, and they have black spots on their back that resemble ovals with regular edges.
The pygmy rattlesnake cannot produce much venom, and it doesn’t contain any neurotoxins. However, a bite would cause pain for several days.
Along with the massasauga, pygmy rattlesnakes have nine large scales on top of their heads rather than many small ones.
Red Diamond Rattlesnake
The red diamond rattlesnake can be found in southern parts of California. They can grow up to about 4 1/2 feet, although most reach between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 feet.
They have a large head that is almost twice as wide as their bodies and turn a reddish color as they get older. Juveniles are often grayish. Along with the eastern and western diamond rattlesnake, the red diamond rattlesnake is the third snake commonly known as a diamondback. They have dark, diamond-shaped blotches on their back, outlined by a lighter color.
They smell their prey by using their tongue, which they use to collect smells before passing them to the top of their mouth and their smelling organ, the Jacobson’s organ.
The ridge-nosed rattlesnake is also known as Willard’s rattlesnake, named after the person who discovered it, Frank Cottle Willard, in 1897.
The ridge-nosed rattlesnake is relatively small, with a length of up to 2 feet. They have a dark brown color with horizontal stripes of white or pale colors. They can be identified by upturned scales along the sides of its nose, giving it the ridge-nosed name.
They are pretty rare to sight as they can only be found at higher altitudes in woodlands. They can be found in Arizona and New Mexico.
They eat various foods, including birds, lizards, insects, and mammals.
The rock rattlesnake is a small snake that reaches about one foot long. They have been found in many different colors, depending on the area and habitat they are found in. The rock rattlesnake is also known as the green rattlesnake and the blue rattlesnake. However, they often come in pink, light gray, and darker colors.
They can be found in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas and are among the least aggressive snakes on this list. They like to keep hidden, even keeping their tails from rattling unless needed. However, living around rocks, many hikers get bitten every year by this species. Their venom can be dangerous, but there is an antivenin available.
The sidewinder rattlesnake gets its name from how it moves across its habitat. The sidewinder doesn’t move by sliding ahead as most snakes do but instead uses parts of its body to move parts of its body sideways at the same time by lifting its body.
The main reason for this type of locomotion is the habitat that it lives in. They are generally found in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah deserts.
They grow up to 2 1/2 feet long and have a pink, gray, buff, or cream background with dorsal patterns.
They are not as venomous as most other snakes on this list but can still cause pain and damage.
The speckled rattlesnake grows to about 3 feet and can be found in California, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Their habitat consists of rocky hillsides, canyons, and ledges which provide shelter.
They feed primarily on mammals but will also feed on birds and lizards. They have a tan, yellow, orange, cream, or bluish-gray background, which often takes on the appearance of their rocky habitat. They have crossbands that may appear as blotches.
Tiger rattlesnake bites are generally not fatal because of the minimal amount of venom inserted, but the toxicity of the venom is incredibly high. Tiger rattlesnakes are found in a tiny area near the Arizona-Mexico border, so their bites can be especially harmful to those who live nearby and accidentally come across one when hiking or camping.
In the U.S., the most feared rattlesnake is the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus Horridus). It has a wide-ranging habitat, from New England to Texas and inland as far as Minnesota.
They are easily identified by their zig-zag cross bands over their brown-gray skin. Timber Rattlesnakes are difficult to rile but pack a particularly nasty venom in their fangs. They will try to avoid contact with humans but, if threatened, will strike. Timber Rattlesnakes are popular visual aids with the renowned snake preachers of the southern states.
Usually growing up to about 2 feet, the twin-spotted rattlesnake can be identified by two rows of dorsal spots.
They can be found in Arizona at high altitudes and are reddish-brown, bluish-brown, or grayish-brown.
Their habitats in Arizona consist of woodlands and forests, and they prefer moist conditions.
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Western diamondback rattlesnakes cover an area in the southwest of the U.S. and parts of Mexico. They can be recognized quickly as they are usually a light tan color, with pale diamonds, which give way to black and white stripes near the rattle at the end of their tails. They have two diagonal, pale stripes on their cheek. Western
Diamondbacks tend to be shorter than their eastern cousins, growing to about 7 feet. The Western diamond rattlesnake is one of the most aggressive snakes on this list, often standing its ground.
They fall foul to several predators, including birds of prey like eagles and hawks, and land mammals such as wild pigs and roadrunners.
The western rattlesnake grows between 1 1/4 and 5 1/4 feet long. They have dark blotches on their neck, which become bands nearer the tail. They have a pale red, tan, brown, blackish, or yellow background.
The western rattlesnake can be found in Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada and the U.S. in Utah, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oregon, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.
They can be found everywhere, from prairies to evergreen forests, and can be found in bushes and trees. Their venom is potent, and they can use up to half their venom in a single bite.
TWO BONUS VIPERS
Copperheads can be found across most of the eastern states of the U.S. The hourglass-shaped markings can identify them on their bodies, giving them excellent camouflage.
Usually, copperheads measure about 2 to 3 feet in length. They give no warning of their intention to attack instead of adopting a frozen pose and staying silent. This means they are less likely to be spotted, and the unwary walker can easily step near one and suffer a bite. Fortunately, their poison is weaker than other vipers, so deaths tend to be fewer.
Cottonmouths are also known as water moccasins, and they can grow to four feet in length. Their body is thick, and their head is a triangular shape. The white inside of its mouth gives it its name.
Cottonmouth’s coloration can vary from black thru brown to lighter browns or gray. They have a pattern of bands on their backs. Cottonmouths are found only in the southeastern corner of the U.S., ranging from Texas to Virginia and inland across the Mississippi basin.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.