Indiana’s Rattlesnakes and Pit Vipers
Breaking News: “Indiana Department of Natural Resources personnel drop hundreds of timber rattlesnakes into Morgan-Monroe State Forest by helicopter to control exploding rodent populations.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this urban (or rural) legend. Every time I hear it, I do a mental eye roll. It’s a myth, plain and simple, so it looks like we need to do a little myth busting.
First, why would the IDNR release rattlesnakes in one of the last remaining areas where they already exist? If expanding the timber rattlesnake population was really a goal, repopulating historical areas where they don’t currently exist would be the proper method.
Where did the rattlesnakes come from? There are no rattlesnake hatcheries and timber rattlesnakes are diminishing in population across their native range, so how did the IDNR procure so many rattlesnakes?
Dropping rattlesnakes from helicopters would injure or kill them. Truth be known, while they appear tough and take a while to die, rattlesnakes are easily injured, so a survival success rate would be close to zero.
Who would be brave enough (or stupid enough) to prep and release venomous snakes from a vehicle with no means of safe egress if a mishap occurred? Think about this for a minute. How many folks are going to have a desire to handle venomous reptiles on the relative safety of terra firma? Then divide that by the added danger of not having any place to go when a rattlesnake gets loose in a cockpit.
Where did the IDNR get the funds? Have you ever heard of the IDNR having excessive funding? Think of the costs and man-hours of finding, transporting, housing, feeding, and providing veterinary care for a few, not to mention hundreds of rattlesnakes. Think of the costs of providing a helicopter crew and biologists to perform the alleged drop.
Why a helicopter? There’s no place in Indiana that isn’t reasonably accessible by wheeled vehicle, which would be far cheaper and safer, and less attention grabbing.
A rodent population boom? Says who? And if there were a rodent problem, why pick one of the lowest consumption predators to combat it? Why not let nature take its course? As prey animal populations increase, predator populations increase because of increased food intake, which translates into higher coyote, bobcat, raccoon, hawk, eagle, and snake survival rates.
Do you get the picture? Can we drive the nails home on the coffin of this myth?
As seen on this copperhead, all pit vipers have elliptical pupils.
Perhaps the issue is the mystery surrounding Indiana’s pit vipers. For the record, pit vipers are a family of snakes with approximately 290 known species found world-wide. Of the 18 species known to exist in the United States, timber rattlesnakes, copperheads, cottonmouths, and eastern massasaugas are native to Indiana.
Like all snakes, pit vipers have a feature called a Jacobson’s organ, which combines the senses of taste and smell. As a snake flicks its tongue, it captures minute particles from the ground, air, or objects. By placing the tongue tips into the Jacobson’s organ, located in the roof of the snake’s mouth, the snake can analyze the particles captured by their tongue. Using this special organ, it identifies and tracks its prey, and can even tell if a rodent’s burrow has been recently occupied. So, the next time you see a snake flicking its tongue at you, don’t fall for the old myth that it’s trying to sting you. It’s merely trying to identify what you are.
Like all snakes, pit vipers don’t have ears, but they can still sense vibrations, such as footsteps, through the bones in their lower jaw.
Copperheads blend in well to a woody background.
Like all snakes, they have the ability to shed their skin, in effect becoming fresh and beautiful time after time. Because of this, some cultures believe powder made from dried rattlesnakes can cure skin diseases, either by being consumed or used as a poultice. If you find a snake shed, carefully inspect the scales. Is there a line down the center of each scale? Pit vipers have keeled scales, meaning there is raised line, like the keel of a boat.
Another concoction believed to have healing powers is rattlesnake salt. If eaten daily, this mixture of pulverized rattlesnakes and salt is thought to prolong life. It is even used in some Voodoo potions, and thought to cure everything from mental illness to feelings of worthlessness.
The term pit viper makes one conjure up images of pits or caves filled with slithering poisonous snakes, but that’s not where the name comes from. A pit viper has a heat-sensing organ located on each side of their head. This organ is known as the facial pit. Using it, pit vipers can zero in on warm-blooded prey and find their carcasses once the venom has done its work.
The pit viper’s venom is injected by their hinged fangs at the front of their upper jaws. The fangs are hollow and connected to venom sacs. The fangs are like hypodermic needles, and the snake can inject as little, or as much venom as it feels is required.
The venom of the pit viper is a compound of proteins and toxins and is hemotoxic. This means the venom attacks the circulatory system by breaking down blood vessels and causing heavy internal bleeding.
Contrary to popular myths, most pit viper bites are dry, and here’s why; pit vipers use their venom to kill their food. They do not have an endless supply of venom so they use it sparingly. If they used all of their venom, they would be vulnerable to other predators, and they would have no way to kill their own food, until their body generated more.
If a big dumb animal such as a deer, cow, horse, or human happens to surprise a pit viper, it usually strikes with a dry bite to get the big dumb animal’s attention, and to warn them to stay away. In most cases it works. Unfortunately some big dumb animals (man) seem to think its great sport to antagonize deadly snakes. Once the snakes realizes the attacker isn’t leaving, it starts using its precious venom to make the attacker stop. Lesson: testosterone and venom don’t mix well.
While they are mysterious and deadly, scientists believe them to be the most highly evolved of all snakes. While most other snakes have to risk bodily injury as they restrain, constrict, and slowly crush their prey, a pit viper merely has to strike and let the proteins and toxins of the venom do their work. Want proof? Compared to other snakes, pit vipers have a large percentage of body fat, a sure sign of an easier lifestyle.
Since man’s first encounter with rattlesnakes, a fascination has developed. Some early colonists believed the rattlesnake was courageous due to its habit of warning its enemies before striking. During the Revolutionary War, flags were made by the colonists depicting a coiled rattlesnake with the saying “Don’t Tread On Me” emulating the bravado associated with the snake.
The rattlesnake rattle is well-recognized, even by those that have never encountered a rattlesnake in the wild. Like a rabbit’s foot, a certain mystical quality is associated with the rattle. This attitude continued into the 1800s when watch fobs were made from or emulating rattlesnake rattles. To this day hat pins, earrings and many other items follow this tradition.
Another use for rattles comes from the music world. Many a guitar or fiddle player keeps a rattle inside their instrument in a belief that good luck will follow. Others simply claim the rattle makes the instrument sound better.
Whatever the use, rattlesnake rattles are highly sought after, and the bigger the better. Many believe each segment indicates a year’s growth. This is not the case. A new segment is added to the rattle each time the snake sheds its skin, which occurs two to four times a year. Segments can also be lost or damaged as a snake traverses rough terrain. When this happens, the tip becomes ragged and unattractive. While the snake doesn’t care, many collectors would rather have a complete-looking specimen. By soaking the rattles in water, a damaged rattle can be trimmed and made to look new. One Arizona cowboy saved a jar full of rattles, then carefully sized and fitted the segments together into one long rattle that extended around his cowboy hat.
The most common pit viper in Indiana, and maybe the most beautiful, is the copperhead. The copperhead, like all pit vipers, has a flat, triangular shaped head with elliptical eyes. This is one way to tell poisonous snakes from non-poisonous. All non-poisonous snakes found in Indiana have round pupils. All pit vipers have vertical pupils, like a cat.
The copperhead is copper, pink or orange in color with bold reddish brown or chestnut hour-glass shaped cross bands. Its native habitat is wooded hillsides and rock outcroppings near bodies of water, but they also favor stone fences, piles of debris, saw dust heaps, and rotting logs. Its diet includes mice, rats, voles, moles, gophers, salamanders, frogs, caterpillars, cicadas, and other insects.
The bite of a Copperhead can be quite painful but is rarely deadly.
Seen rarely in the extreme southwestern portion of the state, is the cottonmouth, also known as the water moccasin. Found near streams, lakes and swamps, the cottonmouth is a brown, olive or black-colored snake with a poorly defined pattern. A cottonmouth eats fish, minnows, frogs, small birds and other snakes.
The cottonmouth is extremely rare in Indiana and is limited to a small area in the southwestern tip.
When threatened, a cottonmouth tends to become defensive and spread its mouth wide as a warning. During this behavior, the whitish lining, or “cotton” of the mouth is plainly visible.
Many erroneous cottonmouths have been reported in the lakes and streams around the state but according to the IDNR and other reptile experts, these are sightings of the common northern or midland water Snake. While this snake looks and acts like the cottonmouth, it is not venomous.
Caution should be taken as a cottonmouth’s bite is far more serious than that of a copperhead and can be fatal.
The massasauga, or swamp rattlesnake, is rare and protected by law. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, this smallest of Indiana's rattlesnakes is found in the central to northern section of the state.
An eastern massasauga looks almost identical to this western massasauga.
Massasauga is from the Chippewa language and means “great river mouth”. As the name implies, the massasauga’s preferred habitat is the swamplands surround the mouths of rivers, as well as bogs and marshy areas.
Its coloring is light tan, buff or gray with brown to olive colored. The markings are well-defined, irregular shaped, but evenly spaced pattern, and ends with a moderately-sized rattle.
Its diet includes small rodents and frogs.
Once more common than at present times, the timber rattlesnake is the largest pit viper found in Indiana. It can grow to over six feet in length and can live 30 years.
Like all pit vipers, the Timber Rattlesnake has a triangular shaped head attached to a relatively slim neck which rapidly widens to a stocky body.
Like the massasauga, timber rattlesnakes are protected by state law and cannot be legally hunted. Efforts are ongoing by the IDNR to study the timber rattlesnake in order to keep it from being wiped out by civilization.
A timber rattlesnake’s marking can range from yellow to green to brown to gray to blue with regularly spaced darker bands and ending in a dark or black tail with distinct rattles.
The habitat of a rattlesnake is similar to that of a Copperhead; heavy forests, caves and rock outcroppings. Timber rattlesnakes can return every fall to den locations that contain hundreds of rattlesnakes, copperheads and even other non-poisonous snakes.
Timber Rattlesnakes, like all pit vipers, like to dine upon rodents, birds, insects, frogs and other snakes.
Rattlesnakes have wide, triangular heads with relatively narrow necks that rapidly expand into a wide body.
Pioneer journals tell of rattlesnakes coming inside cabins in the fall and taking up residence in cupboards, wood boxes and dressers. Some of the stories also tell of making use of these reptiles as dinner.
According to experts, the highest concentration of Timber Rattlesnakes in Indiana remains in Brown County. While not as deadly as some of its cousins, the bite of a Timber Rattlesnake can be fatal.
Prevention against snake bite is the best cure.
Always watch where you are walking.
Never step over a log without knowing what’s on the other side.
Never sit down without making sure the area is clear.
Never stick your hands into places where you can’t see, like a hollow log, under a rock, or down a rabbit hole.
Avoid rocky outcroppings and ledges.
Inspect all camp gear and clothing before using to make sure there isn’t any unwelcome guests.
When crawling under an obstacle probe the area with a walking stick to be sure it is clear.
Take precautions around grain storage areas. The rodents will attract snakes.
Beware when moving boards, sheet metal or other large objects under which snakes can dwell.
Wear heavy boots and pants when in the woods.
The best protection is to leave snakes alone.
For more information download this IDNR brochure.
For those who desire to see a rattlesnake or Copperhead in a safe environment, travel to one of the many state parks that have a nature center like Brown County State Park or Spring Mill State Park. Both have reptile exhibits in their nature centers. A very nice exhibit featuring pit vipers from around the world can be seen in Ohio at the Cincinnati Zoo.
So, back to our myth. What is the most likely source of the popular IDNR black helicopter snake drop story? The IDNR does occasionally release rattlesnakes that have been used in exhibits, or move snakes that may endanger the public. It’s that simple. Besides, everyone knows the IDNR is secretly transplanting black bears and mountain lions to eat all of the excessive rodents…
Recommended reading: Rattlesnakes by L. M. Klauber ISBN-13: 978-0520040397
While all pit vipers are related, the rattlesnake is the most widely recognized. Many yarns are told ‘round camp fires about these snakes but even the name itself is false. The rattlesnake’s rattle isn’t really a rattle at all. Instead, it is a series of loose, interlocking segments that vibrate when shaken.
Here are more bits of rattlesnake mythology and tall tales concerning Indiana's rattlesnakes:
Myth: The rattle is poisonous.
Truth: If this was so then we humans would have the same natural defense. A rattlesnake’s rattle is made up of the same substance as our fingernails, keratin.
Myth: Rattlesnakes swallows their young in times of danger, and releases them when danger has past.
Truth: Pit vipers are ovoviviparous. While most snakes lay eggs, pit vipers carry their eggs inside them until they hatch. They then give birth to the infant snakes.
Myth: Rattlesnakes won’t die until the sun goes down.
Truth: Pit vipers are very tenacious and can keep on going a long time after receiving a fatal wound. Even after the snake is dead, the body can continue to move, often for hours, which is a good reason to leave a dead snake alone. Many people have been bit by “road kills."
Myth: Kill a rattlesnake and its mate will hunt you down.
Truth: Rattlesnakes are solitary creatures and feel no kinship for their young nor their past or present mates.
Myth: Rattlesnakes always coil before striking.
Truth: Rattlesnakes can strike from any position.
Myth: Male rattlesnakes grow rattles, females don’t.
Truth: Almost all true rattlesnakes grow rattles, regardless of sex. There is a specie that lives on the islands off the coast of California that do not grow rattles, just as other pit vipers such as Copperheads and Cottonmouths do not, but sex is not a determining factor.
Myth: The numbers of segments in a rattle tell the age of the snake.
Truth: The rattle gains a new segment each time the snake sheds its skin, which happens two to four times a year, however, segments can break off.
Myth: Rattlesnakes always rattle before they strike.
Truth: Rattlesnakes don’t always rattle before striking, especially if startled. They can also lose or break off their rattles in accidents.
Myth: A rattlesnake will not cross a horse-hair rope because the hair stubble is uncomfortable.
Truth: Rattlesnakes have thick plate belly scales. A horse-hair rope is not a deterrent. Rattlesnakes reside in a brutal, jagged environment. In the American West, they often reside in clumps of cacti and other equally spiny habitat.