This pit viper is generally tan with darker brown, rather rectangular patches down the back. Rattlesnakes shed their skin, or molt, once or twice a year, or more in young, growing snakes. Shedding removes worn or damaged skin and also gets rid of any parasites that may be on the skin. With each molt a new segment is added to the rattle at the end of the body.
Prairie rattlesnakes occur in grasslands throughout the Great Plains and into Canada, having the largest range of any U.S. rattlesnake. While common in prairie habitat, they may also be found in forests and woodlands. Like all pit vipers, these snakes have heat-sensing pits on each side of the head which they use to orient to warm-blooded mammal prey. When sensing danger they vibrate their rattles, producing a buzzing sound as a warning.
The strong venom has tissue destroying capability as well as neurotoxic properties, and can be fatal to humans. But up to 20% of the time a bite will inject no venom, a “dry bite.” These snakes prey on many small mammals as well as amphibians and reptiles. They breed in summer and produce up to 21 live young in the fall which the female will guard and maintain at a warm temperature until hatching, when she leaves them to fend for themselves.
The prairie rattlesnake is not considered endangered, though local populations have been eradicated through killing at communal dens and have decreased in the face of land development and agriculture.
I see these rattlers fairly often basking in the sun along dirt roads in Torrance County. While stretched out and resting they are relatively calm. When disturbed they will coil and vibrate the tail rattles as a warning. It is then that they are most ready to strike to defend themselves. I avoid these snakes entirely and never approach or disturb them, though I actually bumped into one once when not looking where I was walking and it did not strike. Photos here were taken with a telephoto lens.
The Mayo Clinic has published these useful recommendations for anyone who has received a venomous snake bite: If a venomous snake bites you, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately, especially if the bitten area changes color, begins to swell or is painful. Many emergency rooms stock anti-venom drugs, which may help you. If possible, take these steps while waiting for medical help: Move beyond the snake’s striking distance. Remain still and calm to help slow the spread of venom. Remove jewelry and tight clothing before you start to swell. Position yourself, if possible, so that the bite is at or below the level of your heart. Clean the wound with soap and water. Cover it with a clean, dry dressing. Caution: Don’t use a tourniquet or apply ice. Don’t cut the wound or attempt to remove the venom. Don’t drink caffeine or alcohol, which could speed your body’s absorption of venom. Don’t try to capture the snake. Try to remember its color and shape so that you can describe it, which will help in your treatment. If you have a Smartphone with you and it won’t delay your getting help, take a picture of the snake from a safe distance to help with identification.”
Photos taken near old Hwy. 41, Moriarty, NM. Nikon P900 camera.
James Taulman has worked as a research wildlife biologist with the Forest Service and a university professor. He currently enjoys observing and studying New Mexico wildlife. Examples of his work may be viewed at these websites: