Fun with the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

Snakes are not my favorite members of the animal kingdom (I have a problem with the fact that they lack legs.) But I did like this video about rattlesnake behavior and biology from the folks at KQED Science. One cool thing I learned: Baby rattlesnakes aren't actually more dangerous than adults, something I'd heard many times from friends and family.

Katie Colbert, a naturalist at Sunol-Ohlone Regional Wilderness, has often heard people warn that a baby rattlesnake is a greater threat due to the fact that they're unable to control the amount of poison they inject into their victim when they bite. According to Colbert, this is just not true: all rattlesnakes, babies and adults, can control their venom. In addition, Colbert says, "Baby rattlesnakes can only produce and stash a very small fraction of [venom] an adult can." This does not change the fact, however, that a bite from any rattlesnake, regardless of age, is a dangerous bite and requires medical attention.

Video Link


  1. I’d always been told that the problem with baby rattlers was that they didn’t rattle until they’d shed their skin at least once.  You don’t get the warning you get with a bigger snake.

  2. I was always told the problem with baby rattlers is that they are very rarely just cruising around alone; so it’s not that you’re bit by one baby, but that you’re bit by a whole mess of baby rattlers.

    Dude. Now I’m hungry for teriyaki rattlesnake.

    1. That would be false. You’d really have to work hard to be bitten by a baby in the first place … meaning you’re picking it up or otherwise doing something completely optional. Bites from many … you’d have to be drunk.

  3. either my knowledge of tracking devices is really unrealistic or those things look like they’re from the 80s… (and really painful to boot!)

    whatever happened to good ol’ GPS tracking chips?

    1. A GPS tracking chip still needs a power source and rather large antenna, as do radio trackers. As well as any additional electronics designed to collect/beam out other info you’re looking to collect, like an identifying string of numbers. Most of what you’re looking at there is probably battery. If you’ve ever seen early tracking tags, even the ones from the early to mid 90’s are gigantic black boxes and cylinders with 6″ or longer antennae sticking out of them that only lasted a few weeks to a few months. The tiny things you’re thinking of are probably RFID chips which don’t require much in the way of power but require you to be withing at least a few feet to pull info from them

  4. I’ve never had any qualm with any kind of snake, honestly.  I don’t mess with them, they don’t mess with me.  I observe them from a distance, maybe take a picture.  I’ve always thought they were cool animals.  My dad, however, would always kill them without hesitation whenever he saw them, a trait instilled in him by his mother that snakes were evil.

  5. so many animals — including “fish” — don’t have legs and yet poor adorable hungry primate-eating snake takes the whole rap.

  6. I’m a lifelong amateur field herpetologist, but this is the first time I’ve encountered this debunking. I know quite a few other field herpers who also haven’t encountered this particular debunking. While I agree baby rattlesnakes have less venom to deliver, I’d love to see a citation for this other than a county naturalist’s opinion.

    1. Jody, I think you should focus on the word ‘dangerous’, which I believe you’re reading as ‘toxic’. SOME babies CAN be more toxic, but the difference is not consistent and not at all something that would create more ‘danger’ than added venom yield and/or strike range. I believe what was dispelled here was the myth that they are worse than the adults in some way.

  7. My little brother was bitten by a baby rattlesnake. They weren’t sure that he was in fact bitten, although his sock was wet with venom, until it was too late to administer the antivenom. Then he rolled over and started puking and had to ride it out like Daniel Boone. His leg swelled up and turned horrible colors.

    As I recall, the doctor said the venom was no more poisonous than an adult snake’s, but that baby snakes have no control over their dosage and so they tend to go all in on a bite. Older snakes have learned (?) to ration out their poison. 

    1. The liquid would not be venom, as there just isn’t nearly enough to soak a sock. The doctor was mostly right about the toxicity of the venom, but the bit about control over dose is a myth. Glad your brother is ok :)

    2. You may be surprised how often you hear actual doctors repeat medical information that is actually just old wives’ tales.

  8. I never heard anything about baby snakes (except the Zappa kind), so the not-more-dangerous fun fact doesn’t amaze me much. What does amaze me is that I was thinking just three or four days ago about the question of how (or whether) biologists track snakes (of any species).

    I’m familiar (through TV) with the big radio tags (belts, almost) around a large mammal’s neck (say, on a moose), or a tag punched through the ear, or a band around a leg (e.g. on a bird). But how, I wondered, are snakes tracked? Or does nobody care, if they’re not migratory?

    Anyway, that’s why it’s rather cool (and freaky) to see GPS chips inserted like this today. Does anyone know what tracking efforts or methodologies were used before this technology was available?

    Also: is the snake shown at 1:10, when the voice-over mentions “King Snakes”, actually eating its own tail, as it appears to me to be doing? I assume it’s not, so what is it doing?

    1. Eating its own tail: I was wondering that myself. I’ve known more than one kingsnake to bite itself (my theory: kingsnakes are dumb). But on closer inspection I think it’s another snake being eaten. Kingsnakes are constrictors, so there are a lot of coils being tossed about.

  9. I am coming to the conclusion there is no absolute truth about snakes. Other than that they are longer than they are tall.

  10. I believe the reason that the young are considered a bit more dangerous is that they are much less likely to deliver a “dry” bite.  Of the three people and one dog I personally know who have been bitten, two (the dog and one person) received a “dry” bite (one with little or no venom).  I have been told by herpotologist friends that of course a young snake will probably feel more threatened by a human being or dog, partially due to the larger proportional size and partially due to lack of experience and is unlikely to deliver a “dry” bite (as compared to an older and larger snake).  And yes, teriyaki rattlesnake IS delicious.

  11. How can anyone hate on an snake that is polite enough to warn you? He’s one of Nature’s gentlemen.

  12. I’d always heard baby rattlers were dangerous because you can’t hear them.  And that before they get rattles, they primarily avoid predators through camouflage. So they are more dangerous because you can’t see or hear them.  Poisonous snakes without rattles tend to be brightly colored. Baby rattlers are the only poisonous snake you’re really likely to be completely surprised by a bite from. 

    Never heard that snakes can give venomous / non-venomous bites.  Scorpions can (and do: I was stung by one that didn’t inject poison when I was 4.  Like the most painful bee sting ever, but no neural tingling / paralysis).

    I once knew a guy who was stung by a rattler, and they didn’t give him the anti-venom because the doctor was sure it was a spider bite: it was rather high on the leg, and only had one puncture.  Apparently the rattler only got one tooth into him as he was hiking through some brush.  There was quite the debate among the neighbors as to whether it was an old sick rattler with one tooth, a baby rattler that could barely bite through his jeans or just a snake that missed.  But he definitely had all the symptoms of a rattler bite.

    1. There’s nothing to suggest that venomous snakes without rattles tend to be brightly coloured. Plenty of drab and deadly snakes out there that aren’t rattlesnakes. Black mambas come to mind, as well as many vipers — and half the snakes in Australia.

      1. And the Water Moccasin aka cottonmouth. Blackish and mottled. And extremely belligerent.

        There is nothing like seeing that gaping white mouth about 18″ from your leg.  Thank God it was early spring and the snakes were moving slow.

  13. This park has been a big part of my life from childhood until now. It’s really great to see this mini-doc at one of my favorite places in the world. If you are in the Bay Area around Fremont, Sunol, Pleasanton…this is a must see place, it’s absolutely gorgeous.

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