A rattlesnake tastes scents in the air instead of smelling. (Andrew Nydam - Contributed)

Get Outdoors! and learn about rattlesnakes

Columnist Roseanne Van Ee provides information about rattlesnakes in the North Okanagan

We live in rattlesnake country, so we might as well appreciate it.

Our Western Rattlesnakes Crotalus viridis are the only venomous snakes of our six North Okanagan snake species. Their venom is strong enough to stun and kill a mouse and they’re great rodent population controllers.

These shy, evasive reptiles would rather retreat than attack anything bigger than they can swallow. That’s why they rattle — they’re so scared that they curl up and shake. Thankfully, evolution has given them a handy warning device to keep predators away — their rattle.

Rattlesnakes are born rattleless, but like other snakes, they outgrow their scaly skin which gets very irritating until they finally rub against a rock and slide out of their old dried cover from head to tail.

Unlike other snakes though, a little piece of skin gets left on the “button” the rattler is born with. Each shedding adds another piece, until, viola! They have a rattle of dried fingernail-like material that buzzes with a chchchchch! when they’re shaking from fear.

Baby rattlers can deceivingly be mistaken for their look-a-likes — the Bull (or Gopher) snake, except the rattlers have more pronounced jaws giving their head a triangular shape.

But people are mostly fascinated and fearful of the fangs and venom.

Here’s good news: rattlesnakes would rather save their venom for hunting than for defence. That’s why they warn us. It takes about four days to rebuild the venom concentration after a meal. So they don’t want to waste it on people or other large animals.

Rattlesnakes are short-sighted. How can any animal that doesn’t see well, has no ears, nose, nor arms and legs find and capture its prey?

Snakes can “taste” scents in the air with their tongue. Nerves along its belly sense movement and rattlesnakes have pits near their eyes which are lined with cells that detect body heat. They hunt mice by following their heat trails, usually at night when the trails are most conspicuous.

When the rattler locates its prey — it strikes with a pair of hollow fangs that injects the poisonous venom (super-concentrated saliva with enzymes that help to digest tissues and proteins and act as neuromuscular paralyzers) into the prey and waits a few minutes til it’s dead.

A snake’s lower jaw comes apart in front so they can stretch their mouths wide to swallow their prey whole. Their ribs aren’t attached to any breast bone below and their muscles compress the prey into a swallowable “sausage.” Amazing!

Chances are you’ve been close to a rattler if you’ve hiked through Kalamalka Lake Park in summer.

They’re camouflage masters and can silently slip away through the grass without notice. Stay on the trails and watch where you’re going when travelling through rattlesnake habitat.

They love to bask on rocks, so watch out! On hot days, look under picnic benches, vehicles, large rocks or other shady places before getting close. Stay away from possible den sites, for your safety and theirs.

Rattlesnake Safety:

Human bites are extremely rare and often dry (no venom). If bitten, get to a hospital for an anti-venom shot quickly and calmly without increasing blood flow. DO NOT run! DO NOT use tourniquets, make cuts and suck, or anything else that could restrict blood flow or cause more damage. The toxins are destructive enough to cause pain, swelling, tissue and nerve damage at the bite site.

Pets can be taken to the closest veterinary clinic.

Stay tuned for Rattlesnake reproduction and more interesting facts in August’s column.

Roseanne shares her knowledge of the outdoors to help readers experience and enjoy nature. Follow her on Facebook for more.

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Roseanne Van Ee writes Get Outdoors! A Vernon Morning Star exclusive column that teaches you the ins-and-outs of our local ecosystem. (Contributed)

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