American International Rattlesnake Museum

Reptile & Amphibian Hobbiest
April 2000
Mary Edith Moore
with photographs by Gerald L. Moore

Tucked among the galleries on San Felipe in Old Town Albuquerque, New Mexico, sits the American International Rattlesnake Museum. The museum is relatively small, comprising only 1200 square feet, but has the most diverse collection of living rattlesnakes in the world. Included in the exhibits are the science, mythology, culture, and art related to these much maligned creatures.

The idea of a rattlesnake museum was conceived by director Bob Myers, who had two objectives: helping people overcome rattlesnake fears and educating them on how rattlesnakes have influenced our lives.

The front room of the museum is a gift shop with rattlesnake objects including jewelry, shirts, mugs, magazines, and books. In the spirit of rattlesnake conservation, no snake body parts are sold except shed fangs and skins, which are considered educational tools for children. The rear rooms house the rattlesnakes and collectibles, along with a few other interesting desert herps and invertebrates.

Bob always had an interest in reptiles, and snakes specifically, but it was during his college years at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces when his interest in rattlesnakes was kindled. The opportunity arose to work on the International Biological Project (IBP) which was a combination of research efforts by seven different universities on seven different biotic communities. The Chihuahuan desert was the biotic community addressed by New Mexico State University.

Under the IBP, Bob chose to study the migrations of rattlesnakes which included how far and how fast they move from their den sites. These research studies culminated in a desire to have a facility dedicated to rattlesnake education. Ten years ago that desire became a reality when the American International Rattlesnake Museum opened to the public.

The museum houses about 100 rattlesnakes representing 34 species, of which 30 or 31 are exhibited at all times. In the wild, these snakes range from southern Canada, through North, Central, and into South America. Each species is housed in a vivarium with natural furnishings native to its environment. On or next to the vivarium are two inscriptions: one for adults and a simpler one for children. The common and scientific name is listed along with the geographic range, unique characteristics, and/or peculiar habits.

Rattlesnakes are members of the family Crotalidae or pit vipers, so called because they have a remarkable sense organ visible externally as a facial pit, located below and back of the nostril. This family designation of Crotalidae separates the pit vipers from the true vipers of the family Viperidae.

All rattlesnakes are venomous and belong to the genus Crotalus or Sistrurus. With the exception of those rattlesnakes inhabiting the islands in the Sea of Cortez and Santa Catalina Island, a crucial characteristic that distinguishes a rattlesnake from all other snakes, including other pit vipers, is the possession of a rattle.

The rattle is made up of a series of horny segments which are loosely connected, but interlocking, and are located at the end of the tail. A new segment is added after the snake sloughs its skin which can occur two or three times annually. When these segments are vibrated, a hissing sound is produced. Although other snakes may imitate the sound made by the rattlesnake's horny segments, no other snake has a rattle.

In the early days of America, there were few sections of the country that did not have at least one species of rattlesnake. In all probability, rattlesnakes inhabited the entire continent in pre-Colombian days. Today, their range and numbers have been greatly curtailed due to changing climates and habitat destruction. Two of the most widely distributed species are the Prairie Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis viridis, found in the prairies of North America, and the Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus horridus, inhabiting the eastern half of North America. Most rattlesnakes live in dry areas: deserts, grassy plains, and brushy or rocky hills. Perhaps because of the varied topography and aridity in Arizona, the largest number of species and subspecies live in that state.

The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus, is the largest species with a maximum length of 97 inches. The second largest species is the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, which measures up to 88 inches in length. A Pygmy Rattlesnake, Sistrurus miliarius, is the smallest species and grows to lengths between 15 and 22 inches.

One of the many facts illustrated in the museum is convergent evolution, where unrelated species resemble each other due to characteristics which have evolved independently. This is demonstrated with a sidewinder and a viper.

The North American Sidewinder, Crotalus cerastes, inhabits the Mojave, Sonoran, and Colorado deserts. The Horned Desert Viper, Cerastes cerastes cerastes, ranges through the desert areas of Mali and Niger, west to Mauritania, north to Saharan Morocco, east through Egypt and Sinai, north to Jordan and Lebanon, and east to Iraq and Kuwait. These unrelated species evolved independently in similar deserts on different continents and had to solve the same problems in order to survive. Each species arrived at the same solution. They share the same characteristics of size, shape, color, and the presence of "horns"- raised supraocular scales or spines over their eyes. They use the same form of locomotion, sidewinding, and conceal themselves from predators by shuffling or "swimming" below the sand's surface by rocking their body back and forth.

Comparisons are shown among xanthism, albinism, and normal pigmentation. Xanthism, an unusual color aberration in which the yellow pigment (xanthophyll) predominates, is portrayed with Northwestern Neotropical Rattlesnakes, Crotalus durissus culminatus. Two siblings sharing the same vivarium illustrate the difference between a normal and a xanthic coloration. It is emphasized that the xanthic animal is not an albino but simply a color morph. The male has a dark pattern which is normal for the species, but the female's pattern appears yellow. Both sexes have the normal black eye. Nearby, a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake shows a marked deficiency in pigmentation by its pale body and pink eyes, characteristic of albinism. A normal Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is close by for a quick comparison.

A defensive rattlesnake strategy is crypsis, or concealment, which relies on the ability to blend into the background, hiding while in full view. This strategy of blending into the environment is best accomplished by having a color and pattern which matches the surroundings and breaks up the form. Crypsis is highly successful and is more highly developed in some rattlesnake species than others. The Mottled Rock Rattlesnake, Crotalus lepidus lepidus, with its gray mottled pattern lends itself very well to concealment from predators in the southeastern corner of New Mexico, and the Arizona Black Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis cerberus, with its blotches blends quite readily into the rocky terrain of Arizona and western New Mexico. However, the Massasauga Rattler, Sistrurus catenatus, ranging from Arizona to New York, has developed crypsis to a very high degree. The Massasauga Rattler is so cryptic that an adult can be invisible from a few inches away. In spite of its wide range and cryptic ability, the Massasauga Rattler is in need of protection due to overall environmental degradation.

It is unfortunate that so many people look upon the rattlesnake as aggressive. These snakes fill a critical function in their ecosystem by keeping rodent populations under control. They are very secretive and stay hidden most of the time. If a rattlesnake is not handled or stepped upon, it is no threat to man and will normally hide or move away when it detects human approach. Experienced hunters find only a small fraction of rattlesnakes in a given area unless it is denning time or tracks are left in the sand.

The relationship between rattlesnake and man goes back a long time. One of the most remarkable aspects of rattlesnakes is their psychological effect on people. What people have thought about rattlesnakes and why is, in this way, as interesting as the natural history of the snakes themselves. These relationships have been captured in painting, sculpture, myth, folklore, and aboriginal religion.

One of the museum's paintings is a copy of the only watercolor of a rattlesnake by John J. Audubon. This painting was highly criticized by Audubon's friends primarily, but not exclusively, because it depicted a rattlesnake in a tree being attacked by a flock of birds trying to defend their nest. A 1905 bronze sculpture, The Rattlesnake, by Remington, sits on a pedestal and details a horse with a rider rearing up at the sight of a rattlesnake on the ground.

An 1805 photograph (daguerreotype) of a snake sits on a shelf. A 1910 Oriental opium casket is craved in the form of a skull and is encircled by a snake (unidentified species of pit viper) as the symbol of poison. A Singer Snake Game, published 110 years ago by J.H. Singer in New York, is one of about 30 board games. A dark brown vase, 13 inches high, is decorated with a raised, detailed image of one of the most beautiful snakes in America: the endangered San Francisco Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis tetrataenia.

Once seriously considered as our national emblem, the Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus horridus, appears on American flags in the 1770s. Myths versus facts are explored. Copies of old newspaper clippings such as "Man Bites Rattlesnake's Head Off" in Elkton, Virginia, and "Black Snake Used in Holdup" in Camden, New Jersey, invite comment and discussion.

Behind the scenes are literally hundreds of art works, artifacts, and memorabilia that are waiting to be displayed. Because of the increased volume of the collection and the increased number of visitors, Myers is seeking a larger building, for the museum. It is hopeful the new museum will remain located in Old Town Albuquerque. A big part of the new museum will be devoted to the display of items which are now warehoused.

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