Most people have a strong fear, and even a fascination, with snakes, and rattlesnakes in movies are surely good, scary fun. Chances are those rattlesnake “movie stars” are Western diamondback rattlers. This is the rattler of choice in Hollywood because of its large size and loud rattle – the awesome rattler with a formidable reputation.
The Western diamondback rattlesnake is one of the larger species common to the arid southwest United States. This rattler can attain a length of 7 feet, but the average size is between 3 and 4 feet. As snakes go, they are handsome, with color ranging from brown to gray to pinkish, depending on the shade of their habitat. Their backs are lined with dark diamond-shaped blotches outlined by lighter colored scales and their heads are distinguished by two dark stripes, one on each side of the face. Their tails are circled by several alternating black and white bands, much like a raccoon’s.
The most distinguishing feature, of course, is the rattle. This is a series of horny structures at the end of the tail. Each rattle is the keratin remnant of a shed skin, and a rattler can add two or three rattles each year.
Rattlesnakes feed on small rodents, rabbits, gophers – almost anything that can be swallowed whole. They inject venom through fangs that fold back when the mouth is closed, then they wait until the toxin has worked and swallow their prey. They can strike and swallow an animal that weighs more than the snakes themselves.
Rattlesnakes do not go looking for people to bite. When threatened or frightened, a rattlesnake coils its body with its head and tail in striking position and vibrates its tail in warning – not that he is going to strike, but that you need to back off. Once he no longer feels threatened, he will most likely leave the scene.
A Western diamondback strikes only when provoked, so don’t try to pick him up or kill him. Most people survive the bites but they will lose fingers, toes, and even arms because of tissue destruction. If you happen upon one purely by accident, give him some respect, some distance, and chances are he’ll be on his way shortly.