This article is written for the Vernon Morning Star by Roseanne Van Ee. Roseanne enthusiastically shares her knowledge of the outdoors to help readers experience and enjoy nature. Discover exciting and adventurous natural events, best trails, and wild places. Follow her on Facebook for more.
(Part 1 on Rattlesnakes was published in the Vernon Morning Star’s July 9, 2020, edition)
Rattlesnake reproduction is remarkable and unique.
Western Rattlesnakes must be almost one-metre long before becoming sexually mature at five to eight years.
They mate in late summer and early fall on the foraging range, but females store the sperm.
In the following late spring, the sperm is reactivated to fertilize the eggs within her, then the gravid (pregnant) mom basks near the den in the warm sun all summer to encourage the babies growth.
From the time a female mates until the five or so young are born in the fall, she rarely feeds.
She then enters hibernation for the winter to recover. By the time she emerges next spring, she is emaciated (wasted)!
The following summer season or two is spent foraging to recover and to double her weight before mating again.
Male rattlesnakes, on the other hand, fight each other during breeding season. (Sound familiar for the animal kingdom?)
This amazing reproduction process gives the rattlesnakes a disadvantage to survival as a species, and makes them vulnerable to environmental disturbances or poaching.
They easily become extirpated (extinct in areas).
Western Rattlesnakes are almost endangered in British Columbia.
Their numbers are quickly declining because of habitat destruction, purposeful killings and road kill.
It is illegal to harm or kill a rattlesnake.
Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park had 2,000 to 3,000 rattlesnakes within its boundaries in the 1980s when last counted. There’s probably far fewer now. It is the only protected area for Western Rattlesnake dens, but you’re unlikely to encounter one.
Rattlesnakes overwinter in communal hibernacula in deep crevices or rock piles on sunny, warm slopes. They stay close to home; within 1.5 kilometres of their dens during their active season from spring thaw to autumn frosts.
They faithfully return to their same dens. Vernon dens that were studied contained eight to 266 snakes.
Adult rattlesnakes are 60 to 150 centimetres in length. The oldest can live up to 25 years.
Rattlesnake fangs are on hinges that pop into action when they strike. They can regrow new fangs if any are removed.
B.C.’s rattlesnakes diet: 96 per cent small rodents, four per cent small birds.
Very large Rattlesnakes will eat Red Squirrels and baby marmots.
Rattlesnake predators include skunks, hawks and owls.
Most are preyed on in their first year.
Only about 25 per cent of rattlers survive their first year.
Young rattlers have the same strength of venom as adults, just as children’s saliva is similar to adult humans.
Bull Snakes (aka Gopher Snakes) often share the same habitat as rattlers.
They are adaptive imitators of rattlesnakes without the triangular head, fangs or rattle.
Bull Snakes will coil up in defence, hiss and shake their tail. Their hissing and shaking on pebbles sounds like a rattle. This is all in bluff to scare off predators.
Rattlesnakes around Vernon were hunted to near extinction in the 1930s and ‘40s after a young boy from Austin Mackie’s school was killed. Around 4,000 rattlers were killed. The student was handling rattlesnakes at a den site.
Areas where snakes have been eliminated tend to have terrible rodent populations.
Rodents can cause way more damage to human livelihoods and crops than snakes ever will.
Roseanne shares her knowledge of the outdoors to help readers experience and enjoy nature. Follow her on Facebook for more.