Solving the mystery of disappearing rattlesnake rattles

Those of us who treasure our lifestyles as owners of farming and hunting land in Texas know that we've got our fair share of pests and nuisances to deal with in the course of our agribusiness-related duties and responsibilities. Some of these are far more dangerous than others, and rattlesnakes definitely fall into the "more dangerous" category. The rattler species you're most likely to see in southern and eastern Texas are the Western diamondback and timber rattlesnakes. (That said, it should be noted that four other snakes of this genus reside in the state, and other non-rattling venomous snakes are all over East Texas, including the cottonmouth and the highly lethal coral snake, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department). 

"Rattlesnakes can be a serious threat to Texas farmers and ranchers."

Now, one of the more convenient things about rattlesnakes - "convenient" probably seeming a strange word in this context, but bear with us - is their telltale (no pun intended) rattle, made up of loose plates of the keratin that forms their scales, as explained by Andrew H. Price's book Venomous Snakes of Texas: A Field Guide. The reptiles shake their tails, and often also hiss, when they see a predator or a large animal they perceive to be a predator - like a human moving too quickly toward them. If the sound deters the possible threat, a rattlesnake will return to its business - if not, it's quite likely to strike. 

But what if these snakes didn't rattle? What if you never saw them coming onto your TX land until it was too late - or worse, if they started stalking your livestock and your animals wouldn't know when to retreat? In the past several years, various accounts have surfaced - some quite legitimate, others more dubious - about snakes losing their rattles for a number of possible reasons. Today, we'll take a look at several of the different factors behind these odd cases of disappearing rattles, and examine their potential implications for the farmers and ranchers in this state.

Accounts of rattlers with no rattles in the Dakota hills
According to NPR, notable early reports of rattlesnakes that weren't rattling emerged from the Black Hills region of South Dakota in 2013. Reporting by Gary Ellenbolt for the state's public broadcast radio network identified several cases in this area of prairie rattlesnakes bearing a tail deformity - a curled shape not dissimilar to the average pig - that obstructed their rattling. More mundanely, some rattlesnakes simply have their rattles broken when their tails are injured.

Terry Phillip, a snake expert at Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, South Dakota, elaborated on this phenomenon. 

"And so, the snakes that have that genetic defect, those are the ones that are surviving then to reproduce, and they're passing on that genetic defect to their offspring," Phillip said in his NPR interview. 

These snakes are less likely to be detected by predators, as well as unsuspecting humans. More alarmingly, though, the rattler-deficient rattlesnakes often bear more aggression toward prey as well as perceived threats, their instincts believing such an uptick necessary due to their inability to simply scare potential threats away. While it's unclear if similar genetic abnormalities have affected Texas rattlesnakes, they're certainly not immune to the other more ordinary causes of "rattler loss," so to speak. 

Solving the mystery of disappearing rattlesnake rattlesRattlesnakes are no laughing matter for ranchers and farmers - whether they have their rattles or not.

In a nutshell: If a rattlesnake is writhing its way toward you, then raises its head and looks considerably less than content but doesn't rattle, back away slowly and avoid it at all costs! Do note, though, that neither timber nor diamondback rattlers attack without provocation - they will only strike if they feel threatened.

"It's quite possible that rattlesnakes with no rattles may act more aggressively than usual members of their species."

The unique Santa Catalina rattlesnake
While not a threat that anyone buying a ranch in Texas needs to worry about, the story of the Santa Catalina rattlesnake is a fascinating one, and offers insight into why other rattlers may evolve to lose their signature sound. According to National Geographic, this reptile is among the world's rarest, found only on Isla Santa Catalina in the Gulf of California.

Unlike the aforementioned examples, the Catalina rattler has evolved to completely lose its rattle: All living specimens of this species lack a rattle but carry all of the other identifying marks we commonly associate with rattlers - a speckled skin pattern not unlike the diamondback, venomous fangs, a diet consisting primarily of rodents and so on. The naturalist Adrian Cerda Ardura told National Geographic that Catalina's lack of human inhabitants and predators likely led the reptile to lose its rattle to evolution. Sadly, the Catalina rattlesnake population has been depleted by rare reptile collectors, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies it as "critically endangered." 

Debunking a common myth
While farms predominantly dedicated to pig-raising aren't as common in Texas as ranches with herds of Angus cows, they're still a notable portion of the state's livestock farms. As such, these herders of hogs should pay specific mind to a bizarre myth that has arisen among some ranchers and agricultural enthusiasts: the claim that rampant pig attacks have scared the rattles out of numerous rattlers.

According to the Living Alongside Wildlife blog, the documented fact of pigs' proclivity for chowing down on rattlesnakes has led some to assume that the reptiles stopped - or at least greatly reduced - their rattling due to fear of hog attacks. But there exists no substantive evidence, and certainly none in a large enough sample size, to prove a definitive connection. The most obvious reason to be doubtful of this claim stems from rattlesnakes and pigs not commonly living in the same areas. Pigs would have to be eating rattlers in such great numbers as to affect a change in instinct that would in turn spark an evolutionary development - as occurred with the Santa Catalina rattlesnake.

Snake safety pointers
We mentioned perhaps the most basic fact of snake safety above. But we'd be remiss if we failed to give you all some more comprehensive tips for snake safety, whether they're rattling at you or not.

Per the instructions of Texas Parks and Wildlife, the best way to avoid poisonous snakes is to keep your lawn trimmed low, as these reptiles thrive in tall-bladed grass. Debris, rock and wood piles also tend to attract them. As previously noted, most snakes found in Texas, even the most venomous ones, aren't naturally inclined to attack humans. (Red-yellow coral snakes, being of the cobra family, are the possible the exception, but they're unlikely to get anywhere near your farm.)

If you or someone accompanying you gets bitten, quick action will be your best ally. Know which snakes are most common in your area, so you can quickly tell medical professionals and they'll know which antidotes to use. Antivenom, antibiotics and any other doctor-prescribed remedies must be administered within four hours of the bite to be effective. Once eight hours have passed, these countermeasures are, unfortunately, not helpful at all.

Finally, although you can purchase antivenom and administer it to a bite victim, only do so if you have notable medical training - incorrect use can be extremely harmful or even deadly.