The Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis)

Kurt Lueneburger





Food and Feeding



Human Interaction



     The western rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis, is the most widely distributed rattlesnake in the western United States and Canada, and also the most variable in North America, with nine subspecies. It is also Oregon's only truly venomous snake. Two subspecies are found within Oregon's borders; C. v. oreganus, the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake, and C. v. lutosus, the Great Basin Rattlesnake. By studying the ecology of these potentially dangerous snakes I hope to demonstrate the wonderous diversity of these New World snakes that we threaten to eliminate as a result of unsubstantiated fear.


     There are no other species of snakes that can be readily confused with a rattlesnake, but intraspecific recognition becomes difficult due to the many variations in color and pattern. The snakes do have a unique relatively robust body, broad, diamond-shaped head, infamous rattles, and hidden fangs making them easily identifiable as dangerous. C. viridis varies in ground color from gray, olive, greenish gray, greenish brown, brown, yellowish brown, tan, salmon, and reddish to black. The dorsal body pattern consists of a series of 20 to 50 hexagonal or circular blotches, which may become more like crossbands near the tail. It has sharply outlined head marks with 2 light diagonal stripes occurring on the side of the face. One line extends from in front of the eye along the mouth's labial scales and the other from in back of the eye to the back corner of the mouth. Narrow, light transverse stripes may pass across the face over the supraocular scales. The underside is gray, cream, or white with no dark markings and lateral secondary blotches run the length of the body. Adult snakes typically reach 24-60 in. in total length with males averaging larger than females. They can attain the larger lengths over an estimated lifespan of 16-20 years in the wild (Fitch, 1949). The longevity record for C. viridis is 27 years and 9 months in captivity. The growth rate of individual snakes is quite variable, depending on foraging success and climatic conditions. It is known, however, that growth slows with age and length.

     Rattlesnakes add a rattle to the string each time the skin is shed. The rattle is in fact composed of hardened keratin. At birth each rattlesnake has a prebutton on the tip of its tail. This prebutton is replaced at the first shedding with the button, and subsequent rattles are added with each shed skin. C. viridis typically sheds 3-5 times in its first summer and 1-3 times in subsequent years. Since growth is variable and the string of rattles seldom remains intact, it is inaccurate to use the number of rattles as justification of age.


The western rattlesnake ranges from south-central British Columbia, southeastern Alberta, and southwestern Saskatchewan southeastward through the United States to extreme western Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, and south to northern Baja California and northern Mexico. Elevations occupied range from near sea level to over 12,000 ft. (Wright, and Wright 1947). In Oregon C. v. oreganus occurs east of the cascades and in valleys west of the Cascades south of Salem while C. v. lutosus occurs only in the southeastern corner of the state.

The northern Pacific rattlesnake is one of the most broadly tolerant of all rattlers in its choice of habitats. It occurs in arid plains, desert margins, fertile valleys, prairie grasslands, chaparral-covered foothills, on rocky ridges, in mountain meadows, and forests. Northern Pacific rattlesnakes are often found around watercourses in the summer, but too much water can be a limiting factor. They are unable to maintain stable populations in coastal coniferous forests probably due to excessive moisture and notably low summer temperatures. C. v. lutosus occurs nearly exclusively in the arid plains and desert areas of southeastern Oregon. All rattlesnakes are careful to keep usually south-facing rocky outcroppings with deep crevices or prairie dog towns within migratory distance.


C. viridis is generally only active from April through September. The pivotal body temperature for both arousal and dormancy is 10°C (Jacob and Painter, 1980), but a body temperature of 16°C may be necessary to bring them out of the den (Woodbury, 1951). Rattlesnakes conserve their energy during the coldest winter days and nights by entering a state of torpor. Males and females emerge from the hibernacula at about the same date. The dens of these snakes may include several other species of snakes as well. As spring progresses, they disperse onto their summer range, usually after remaining near the hibernaculum for several days or weeks. The mean size of these summer activity ranges was found to be only 2.9 ha. for males and 1.8 ha. for females, but ranges most likely are larger than these figures indicate (Macartney et al, 1988). They migrate long distances to and from the den in the spring and fall. These long migrations which may measure kilometers in distance are not usually direct. Snakes may stay in an area rich in food supply for quite some time before moving on. Field observations seem to indicate that snakes use a fixed-angle, sun-compass orientation in homing to the den and their summer range (Duvall et al, 1985). Watercourses provide no barrier to C. viridis as they have been shown to swim very well (Klauber, 1972).

During the spring and fall, C. viridis often prowls during the middle of the day. With the onset of summer and temperatures averaging more than 25°C, the snake's activity patterns shift to mainly in the morning and late afternoon. Snakes may be active nocturnally if climate permits. The hours in between are spent either under cover, coiled in the shade, or basking depending on the air temperature. Adult snakes prefer to maintain body temperatures of 20-35°C. The critical thermal maximum for C. viridis is 38°C, and body temperatures of 41-42°C are lethal (Brattstrom, 1965).

Food and Feeding

Pit vipers like C. viridis have several adaptations making them well suited for both seeking and catching prey. C. viridis uses 2 predatory strategies: either that of an actively searching forager, or that of sit and wait ambush (Diller, 1990). The first is used when prey are scattered or often during migration to or from the den. The second is used more often when colonies of rodents have been identified and the snake can lie near the opening of burrows or rodent runs.
Prey may be detected by vision, infrared emissions, or olfaction. Movement of the prey seems to be the primary visual component that brings on further exploration (Scudder and Chiszar, 1977). It has been shown, however, that vision is not necessary for successful hunting. A congenitally blind, captive C. v. oreganus accurately directed its strikes to the vulnerable anterior region of mice (Kardong, 1991). In general, the vision of the rattlesnake is moderately good, but with narrow spatial limitations.

A curious snake will usually increase the rate of its tongue flicking obtaining more detailed olfactory information about its surroundings (Chiszar, 1981). The tongue is an accessory to the sense of smell. It picks up minute particles in the air and transfers them to 2 pits, known as Jacobsen's (or vomeronasal) organs in the roof of the mouth. The organs relay the chemosensory information resulting from the airborne particles, through the vomeronasal nerve, to the brain where the information is combined with other sensations (Duvall et al, 1990). Jacobsen's organs, however, are not the sole source of the snake's olfactory knowledge. Odors can also be detected by the nose and its accompanying organs of scent. This unique combination of sensory input gives rattlesnakes a keen sense of smell that allows them to seek out and methodically trail bitten prey without unnecessary retaliation (Diller, 1990).

As important as olfactory cues are to seeking and recovering prey, it appears that they may be unnecessary for predatory strikes. Free ranging C. viridis were exposed to warm models of deer mice (Peromyscus) devoid of odors. Snakes always struck the models with core temperatures 1.5-4.5°C warmer than the background air temperatures (Hayes and Duvall, 1991). C. viridis utilize a pit organ located in the loreal scales of the head to detect prey body heat as it relates to background temperatures. Experiments by Noble and Schmidt (1937) apparently show that the thermoreceptive function of the pit is essentially of short-range value, but the acuteness of the pit to the thermal fluctuations within its range of approximately 350mm is astounding. Very sensitive nerves in the mouth and an auxiliary infrared sensitive system, nociceptors, may also contribute to thermal recognition of prey (Dickman, 1987).
Once prey is found, rattlesnakes use efficient and deadly venom to subdue their prey. Members of Crotalus have the longest fangs of any snake species (Klauber, 1972). They are able to keep such large fangs hidden within their mouth because of a unique hinge mechanism. The fangs are individually hinged so that they can easily rotate from a passive position to the active biting position. In the resting position, they are folded back against the upper jaw, with the base and point at about the same level, and the bulge of the fang's curve fitting into a hollow in the lower jaw. To assume their striking position, the fangs are rotated downward until the proximal part of the fang is substantially perpendicular to the upper jaw (Klauber, 1972). These fangs are sequentially replaced at intervals not exceeding 8 weeks by a series of replacement fangs lining the upper jaw. At the base of each hollow fang is a duct that leads to the venom gland. The snakes do have the ability to control the release of venom in both or individual fangs by controlling the pressure placed on a sphincter located by the individual venom glands.

Venom has 2 major purposes: it is used to poison the prey and prevent retaliatory injury to the snake and aids in digestion. The venom of C. viridis is predominantly hemorrhagic in its effects (Russel, 1983), but hemorrhagic, neurologic, and proteolytic activities may all result during a single bite. Snakes farther north have higher hemorrhagic capabilities (Adame et al, 1990) and larger snakes have increased venom yields. The mean mass of venom expended in a single predatory strike is 14 mg with 89% of the venom being injected into the tissues (Hayes and Duvall, 1991).
Surprisingly, C. viridis is not immune to its own venom, however, the venom must enter the bloodstream to be effective. The overall toxicity of the venom is slightly higher than that of the slightly larger species C. atrox, the western diamondback rattlesnake, and the potency coupled with the high irritability of many individuals makes C. viridis a very dangerous snake (Russel, 1983). Symptoms recorded by Hutchinson (1929) resulting from human envenomation include swelling, pain, weakness, giddiness, breathing difficulty, hemorrhage, weak pulse, heart failure, nausea, vomiting, secondary gangrene infection, ecchymosis, paralysis, unconsciousness, nervousness, and excitability. Luckily, bites are relatively infrequent in occurrence and rarely lead to death in humans. In smaller prey, envenomation leads to certain death within minutes.

C. viridis
has the most variable diet of any rattlesnake in North America. Warm blooded prey seem to be preferred, but reptiles, amphibians, and bird eggs are also taken. Prey selection is limited by the size that can easily be swallowed, and prey size increases as the snakes grow. The chief prey of C. viridis in Oregon are ground squirrels (Spermophilus), kangaroo rats (Dipodomys), cottontails (Sylvilagus), white footed mice (Peromyscus), pocket gophers (Thomomys), and voles (Microtus) (Diller and Johnson, 1988; Wallace and Diller, 1990).

C. viridis
may also be forced to use its harmful venom on 1 of many predators known to prey on rattlesnakes. Hawks (Buteo), golden eagles (Aquila), and coyotes (Canis latrans) may be the worst predators of rattlesnakes, but their diet will rarely consist of more than 1% rattlesnake (Fitch, 1949). Accidents involving large animals such as deer (Odocoileus), horses (Equus), and members of the Bovidae family trampling snakes are often fatal and may account for more deaths than natural predators. However, C. viridis has the most to fear from humans who usually kill them on sight.


Mating in C. viridis is a science of confusion. It is believed that female rattlesnakes are on a biennial reproductive cycle, but annual cycles have been noted (Charland, 1989). Male rattlesnakes are capable of mating at any time, except when in torpor, with varying success, depending on climatic conditions. Females however, have the ability to hold mature spermatazoa within their oviducts for years or until ovulation in the spring (Hayes, 1986). For a long time a so called "combat dance" was thought to be 2 snakes mating. In reality the dance involves 2 male snakes that may entwine their bodies together and lunge at each other with their heads. The ritual affirms the dominance of 1 snake over the other yet results in no harm to either snake. Although this curious act demonstrates dominance and strength, desired evolutionary attributes, no females need be present to witness the act. To further complicate our understanding of breeding, climatic and geographic variations lead to variations in reproduction among members of the same subspecies.

Several aspects of the reproductive process are definitively known though. Rattlesnakes are viviparous. They keep their fertilized eggs within their bodies until maturation and then give live birth to the young. A normal clutch of young contains anywhere from 1 to 14 rattlers with an equal ratio of males to females. The birthing season lasts from late summer, around August, through early fall, around October (Diller and Wallace, 1984). At the time of birth the young snakes average 251 mm in length. Number of young is proportional to female body length, and species farther north generally have fewer young (Macartney and Gregory, 1988). Mating usually takes place in the late spring and summer, coinciding with the peak of male spermatogenic activity. Males must take the initiative to find the females while still searching for a productive home range, whereas females concentrate solely on reaching their home range and finding food (Duvall et al, 1990). Males find females following olfactory cues such as pheromone trails (Scudder et al, 1988) and breed in a polygamous fashion.

Human Interaction

A lack of knowledge and the resulting fear threatens the existence of these misunderstood pit vipers. If the habitat is proper, C. viridis may be the most common local snake, but in many areas populations are disappearing due to human intervention. Generally the largest existing populations occur in isolated areas. Countless rattlesnakes have been murdered in our efforts to control their populations. Of course our idea of control is complete irradication of all rattlesnakes. Many methods of control have been used in the past including campaigns for killing at dens (extremely effective), traps, fences, gases and poisons, encouragement of competitive predators and enemies, elimination of food supply and cover, bounties, and fires. Rattlesnakes must also contend with floods, freezes, disease, speeding cars, and loss of habitat due to settlement and agriculture. However, their value as small mammal predators, which can cause great harm to agricultural and grazing fields and may spread disease, is rarely acknowledged. The threat of a painful and possibly lethal bite dominates our view of these snakes even though they have a defensive temperament, avoiding larger animals including us whenever possible. Nearly all defensive strikes are precluded by a buzzing rattle, and many are in fact "dry bites" with no venom injected. Although envenomation may cause serious tissue damage if not treated within 18 hours (Klauber, 1972), it rarely causes death. Oregon's rattlesnakes should be treated with caution, but they need not be feared.


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