Imagine you’re walking through a sweltering desert, the lone captive in this sea of sand. There’s no one around for miles, only beige and blue stitched at the perimeter of this scene. The sun shines on you mercilessly, like a summer in Algiers, only worse. The only discernible sounds are the chilling sounds of gusty winds and your feet shoveling the sand. Suddenly, you hear another sound nearby – a rattle.
Given how proficient rattlesnakes are at being cryptic by means of camouflaging, you won’t be able to seek the source of this shrill. However, you sense it sneaking up on you, lurking beneath the torrid sand, likely slithering towards your feet. Panic.
Rattlesnakes are large venomous snakes that are found throughout North and South America. Arizona houses 13 species of rattlesnakes alone, more than any other state. Other than already exhibiting the frightening gesture of hissing, rattlesnakes have evolved an additional gesture that sends chills down our spine. This distinctive feature is their signature rattling.
So, how do these snakes rattle and, more importantly, why do they do it?
How is the rattle produced?
The rattle appears to be ‘attached’ to the tip of a rattlesnake’s tail. Daniel, the creator of the YouTube channel What’s Inside? decided to cut open a rattle through the middle with an incisive cutter, and guess what he found?
Nothing! The apparatus is hollow!
The rattle is formed by hollow interlocked segments made of keratin, the same material that constitutes a human fingernail. The segments fit loosely inside one another at the end of the serpent’s tail. The snake then erects his tail and vibrates its muscles vigorously, such that these segments collide with each other to produce the recognizable rattling sound. Because the structure is essentially hollow, the sound is distinct and amplified.
A rattlesnake is not blessed with this equipment from birth. It is born with what is called a pre-button or first button, a single rigid segment of keratin. However, it cannot produce its rattle with a single layer. It is only after the formation of the second and additional shells that the rattle can be produced by knocking them against each other.
As the young snake sheds its skin after a few days, it also acquires a new button. The shells then successively increase each time it sheds its skin thereafter. However, they cannot keep hold of these layers for long, as the layers are often lost in battles, bitten off by predators or clinically damaged when they slide against rugged rocks.
Why do they rattle?
A rattlesnake waggles its tail so aggressively that it produces the rattle 50 times in a single second! Furthermore, it can sustain that rattle for more than 3 hours!
But what purpose does this grueling task serve?
Evolutionary biologists believe that rattlesnakes use this rattle as a signal for predators to stay away. The snake has evolved to possess a highly sophisticated warning design to caution away any potential danger. In fact, rattlesnakes are considered the newest and most evolved snakes in the reptile family.
The high-pitched rattle contributes an additional element of warning to a snake’s trademark petrifying hiss. Other than these complex mechanisms, rattlesnakes also coil their serpentine bodies and raise their heads to demonstrate resistance.
Snakes are often perceived as vicious creatures, partially due to their insidious behavior. However, these acts are anything but malicious or aggressive. Every creature in the animal kingdom illustrates a propensity to protect itself in order to survive.
Camouflage is one of the characteristics most typical of snakes. They disguise to hunt prey, but humans often inadvertently step on them. In fact, a large portion of rattlesnake bites are caused by humans stepping on them. Regardless of our intention, of course, at the receiving end of a fatal threat, the snake resorts to Protocol Zero, its last resort – to bite.
So, if you don’t want these snakes to make you scamper in fear for your life in this hypothetical scenario, you better watch your step!