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Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes encountered in Mexico, southwestern United States

Western diamondback rattlesnakes crawl over each other as they lie in a pit prior to races at the World Champion Rattlesnake Races in Old San Patricio, Texas, Sunday, March 17, 2002.

AP Photo Eric Gay

Western diamondback rattlesnakes crawl over each other as they lie in a pit prior to races at the World Champion Rattlesnake Races in Old San Patricio, Texas, Sunday, March 17, 2002.

Staff Writer, Patrick Stein

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The Western diamondback rattlesnake, or “Crotalus atrox,” is a venomous reptile found in Mexico and the southwestern United States.
The Western diamondback rattlesnake is usually gray-brown in color, but can also have pigments of red, pink, yellow and white. This coloration helps them camouflage in the rocks and dirt that’s abundant in their environment. Their scales have blotches that appear to be a diamond shape, hence the name diamondback, according to naturemappingfoundation.org.
The other distinguishing feature of the rattlesnake is the rattle at the end of their tail. The rattle is composed of keratin, the same material that our fingernails are made out of.  A new segment is added to the rattle after each time the snake sheds its skin, which can happen multiple times a year, according to animaldiversity.org.
In an email interview, Russ Johnson,  President of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, helped explain how the rattle makes noise when the snake rapidly shakes its tail. “The rattles make the noise when they hit each of the connecting buttons together. A baby rattlesnake is born with one rattle, called a pre-button, so it makes no noise even though the tail is being shaken.”
The average length for these snakes is between 3 and 4 feet. According to “Venomous Reptiles of North America” by Carl H. Ernst, “This is one of the largest venomous snakes (maximum length, 213 cm) in the United States, surpassed in length and bulk only by its eastern cousin “Crotalus adamanteus,” and individuals over 120 cm are not rare.”
Western diamondback rattlesnakes are pit vipers, which means they have heat-sensing organs in pits along the side of their head, between the nostrils and eyes. This helps them view the size of warm-blooded creatures and determine if they are predators or prey in the day or night, according to phys.org.
These snakes are primarily ambush predators, meaning they will lie in wait until prey comes near them. In a phone interview, Leslie Boyer, MD and director of the Venom Immunochemistry, Pharmacology and Emergency Response (VIPER) Institute at the University of Arizona, said, “They are not picky eaters. They eat meats, including various rodents, birds or lizards.”
“Venomous Reptiles of North America” stated that “while the venom of ‘Crotalus atrox’ is certainly potent enough to rapidly kill its prey, many small animals probably die almost instantly from being struck by such long fangs as possessed by this snake.”
If the fangs don’t kill the prey instantly and it manages to escape, the snake follows it until the venom finishes the job.
“Rattlesnakes’ fangs are similar to hypodermic needles,” said Boyer. “The venom will be forced through the hollow fangs.” The snakes have large venom glands behind the upper jaw, near the back of their head. Upon biting, the snake has the option of making the muscles contract and squeeze the venom out of the glands.
According to the “2009 Merck Manual Home Health Handbook,” editor-in-chief Robert S. Porter wrote, “In about 25 percent of all pit viper bites, venom is not injected… The venom of rattlesnakes and other pit vipers damages tissue around the bite. Venom may produce changes in blood cells, prevent blood from clotting and damage blood vessels, causing them to leak. These changes can lead to internal bleeding and to heart, respiratory and kidney failure.”

AP Photo David Duprey
Tom Hudak, not shown, shows a rattlesnake’s tail at his home in Avon, N.Y., Wednesday, March 11, 2009.

“Anti-venom is made using antibody molecules that have been produced using living animals, similar to the way we would use a tetanus shot,” said Boyer. The animals (most commonly horses) are frequently injected with a specific snake’s venom to build these antibodies, and then the antibodies are extracted to be used by humans. “There are a few more steps along the way, but that’s the basic idea.”
In an interview, Mark Sirota, a Park Ranger, gave advice on what to do if you get bit. “First aid protocol used to be to cut an X on the point of impact, and then suck the venom out. Protocol now is to not suck on it, keep calm, and go to the nearest hospital. Most hospitals have anti-venom.”
Johnson agreed with this sentiment and added, “Staying calm helps the individual make good decisions and give medical help accurate responses to their questions. Getting excited can cause hyperventilation, dizziness and irrational behavior.”
Sirota said that snake bites occur most often on the hands, not the legs. “Hikers and rock climbers often stick their hands into crevices where snakes are hiding and get bit. Many of the bites are dry bites (without venom), but you should still take the precautions.”
Runners encounter more snakebites on the legs. “Marathon runners have the biggest problem,” said Sirota. “They approach the snake too fast, which startles it, and they often can’t hear the snake because they run with their headphones on. Turn the music down, or leave one ear bud open to be more aware of your surroundings.”
David Leahy, a resident of Peoria, had an unwelcomed rattlesnake appear in his backyard. His backyard is adjacent to a desert, with only a 2 foot-high wall with a view fence separating them. “We were having dinner with the family, and our dogs were barking and acting weird on the porch. Everyone’s heart raced when my dad said it was a snake, and we almost knocked the table over… Our biggest concern was the dogs, who thought it was a toy and were trying to play with it as it sat in a ball on the porch.”
Western diamondback rattlesnakes can be very aggressive when agitated. “The snake was stubborn,” Leahy added. “My dad tried to dispose of it by scooting it away with a shovel. It actually struck the shovel a couple of times. It wouldn’t move away, so my dad ended up killing it with the shovel.”
However, not all of them are aggressive. On a camping trip at Lake Pleasant, Chris Stein, an avid outdoorsman, had a rattlesnake peacefully cross over his camping grounds. “We were finishing packing up our camping gear, and our dad called out that there was a snake,” Stein said. “It was probably 2 and a half feet long, and it went under our camper and across the flat dirt near the ramada. I stood near the truck and did a little dance, trying to zone it away from the other truck.”
Stein was within two feet of the snake and wasn’t concerned. “I owned a pet king snake before, so I know a thing or two about them. This rattlesnake never used its rattle, which they use when agitated or startled. It willingly invaded our camp grounds with us moving around and making noise, so it knew we were there. It also was stretched out and slowly moving the entire time; they can’t attack effectively that way. They need to coil up to launch like a spring.”
The Western diamondback rattlesnake is a wild animal and should be treated with respect. Johnson said, “Rattlesnakes absolutely do not want to bite a human being because we are too large to eat. If it wastes all its venom on you, it can take days to create enough venom to subdue prey, so it very well can miss out on a meal.” If you encounter one, walk away slowly and give it sufficient space.

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Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes encountered in Mexico, southwestern United States