How Dangerous Are Rattlesnakes?

Only about one fourth of all snakes are venomous. Among the venomous snakes are those considered by experts to be highly dangerous and others that are of little concern as a danger to man. Those considered to be dangerous are so designated for several reasons:

  1. Their venom may be highly toxic.
  2. They may carry large quantities of venom.
  3. They may live in close proximity to people.
  4. They may be present in large numbers.
  5. They may defend themselves more aggressively.
  6. They may be agile or quick.
  7. When they are being kept as "pets".
  8. Medical facilities in the area may be poor.
  9. They may have long fangs producing deep wounds.
  10. Their color and pattern may hide their presence.
  11. They may be active during the hours we are active.
  12. They may be territorial or protective. (very uncommon)

Most rattlesnakes have relatively weak venoms when compared to the world's true vipers and cobras. Copperheads and water moccasins have comparatively weak venoms as well.

The Eastern and Western Diamondbacks are of concern in this country because of their wide distribution, their relatively large size (giving a greater striking distance - about one-third to one-half their body length), the deep puncture wounds they inflict, and their large amounts of venom. The Western Diamondback will also readily defend itself. The Mojave Rattlesnake is the most potently venomous of this country's rattlesnakes. The corral snake's venom is a potent neurotoxin but the snake is not considered particularly dangerous because of its demure manner.

Rattlesnakes will make every effort to avoid contact with people. We are far more dangerous to this secretive animal than it is to us. In almost every case, we are treading on the snakes' home territory when we encounter them, and in almost every case, the rattlesnake looses its life.

Many bites are the result of someone trying to capture, kill, or handle the snake, and a good number of bites occur to snake keepers, both private and professional. The bite is a defensive reaction and should not be considered an act of aggression. The rattlesnake's rattle offers the snake a means of communication, designed to warn larger animals of their position.

In the United States, humans experience about 8000 bites from venomous snakes each year. Of those, an average of 12 per year, less than 1%, result in death. Far more people die each year from bee stings, lightning strikes, or almost any other reason. Incidentally, one-third of all rattlesnake bites are "dry" bites, when no venom has been injected.

The rattlesnake's role as an important link in the food web far outweighs its potential danger to our well being. In fact, rodent born diseases are probably controlled to a great extent by rattlesnakes and other predators. Offer them respect, observe them from a safe distance, and then leave them to perform their valuable ecological function.

The only good snake is a live snake!

Copyright © 1991 by American International Rattlesnake Museum

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