Newborn rattlesnakes are born devoid of a rattling rattle. It is referred to as a button and they will develop the ability to rattle after their first shedding. Hence the reason the one we saw was lacking one. They are typically 10-12 inches in length. Shortly after birth they are abandoned and left to fend for themselves. The females can have up to 25 babies at a time but the mortality rate is extremely high. Immediately upon birth the young have the venom to defend themselves.
Just the other day we were strolling through the White Tanks on a night hike when our hike was interrupted. Right square in the middle of the trail was a 10 inch baby rattler. How adorable! We immediately harnessed the dog and I began taking photos. The snake was alert when we approached, but that quickly escalated as we stood there. The strangest part of this encounter was the lack of rattle. The snake appeared to have a diamond shaped head and similar markings that I had seen. (After later research we came to find out that the snake was indeed a rattler. The babies do not immediately develop a rattler that makes noise.) The rattler was agitated with us standing there and became defensive as it slowly slithered under a rock and allowed us to pass.
This early encounter got me thinking about how many rattlers I have encountered on the trails and the many misconceptions I have heard about them. I hope to debunk some of this information so you are better prepared for your next encounter.
Adults can live for up to 20 years, but that is only commonly seen in captivity. Rattlers in captivity can survive only eating once a year. In the wild the snakes eat more often, but a majority of the prey they kill goes uneaten. This is primary because the prey is too large to consume. Adults have backup fangs which can be employed after their fangs break off in prey or are damaged. Rattlers are unable to spit venom but when pressure is applied to the venom gland the venom can be released. The snakes are able to detect humans long before you do due to their ability to detect ground vibrations. In other words they feel you coming. Rattlers tend to be most active in the Spring after completing hibernation. This is most likely why we saw this young one out for an evening stroll. The snakes can strike 1/3 to 1/2 their body length. So keeping a generous distance is ideal.
Guess what? These creatures are not out to get you. You are way to large to be of any use to them. When surprising rattlers they become defensive and will strike. The best way to avoid an unnecessary bite is to keep and open eye on the trail for them. Hiking with one ear open to the surroundings is not a bad idea. When you encounter a rattler in the middle of the trail. Stop and back away. Common sense right? Once backed away safely watch to make sure the snake leaves the trail and give the creature a few moments to get farther away before passing. Although bites are unlikely to kill you (unless you are young, old, or ill) why take a chance.
If for some reason you surprise a rattler and are struck, relax. The most important thing to do is keep calm and seek immediate medical attention. If possible send a runner for help and leave someone to monitor the patient. Lying down and keeping the bite wound lower then the heart. Slowing the circulation is the key here. There are many recommendations for applying light pressure to the wound area (restricting flow) but there are many conflicting reports. This also applies to any suction techniques that have been recommended. The best course of action is to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Most people bitten by rattlesnakes are young males who are fucking with the snake. Also (big shocker) alcohol is a common factor. If you see a snake, let it be. You do your thing and the snake will do it's own. The moment you begin fucking with it you invite a bite. Don't be stupid.