Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

Oh, was she beautiful! When we first met, in coastal Georgia, I found her stretched
out in the sand — motionless, sunbathing. It was a gorgeous winter day, the sun steadily
warming the earth, the air cleansed by a recent rain. Hypnotized and riveted by
her form, I could hardly take my eyes off her. Then she noticed me, and began
to slink into the tortoise burrow nearby. The body of the massive rattlesnake straightened
as it entered the tunnel, gathering momentum as it slithered — essentially
downhill — into the darkness of the burrow depths.   

Almost a year to the day later, in
January 2005, I found the very same eastern diamondback rattlesnake basking at
a different tortoise burrow only 50 yards distant. In my photos, she was easy
to recognize as she sported a series of oddly-shaped diamonds; also, diamonds 7
and 8 were coalesced into a single large mark. Doing her best to be invisible,
she had positioned herself in a tight coil among fallen oak leaves about 12
feet from the burrow entrance. Had I not been looking hard I never would have
spotted her.  

This rattlesnake spot is on a large area of public
land that is protected. Just getting to the resident tortoise
colony where I found the diamondback requires a bit of a hike. But it’s
worth it, as habitats here, regularly subject to
prescribed fire, are open-canopied and gorgeous longleaf
pine–wiregrass. Woods like William Bartram saw. First, I walk around a small
cypress pond—ornate chorus frogs whistle here during wet winters, and carpenter
frogs hammer away come April; then, I pick up a narrow game trail that courses
through an open pine-palmetto stand—the longleaf here are antiques with flat-topped
crowns and fire-charred catfaces—before splitting two bayheads and rising
slightly onto a large island of sandridge.  

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Camouflaged in the scrub

In late November, 2008 we find her
again. Her scales glisten and her colors are crisp, indicating that she has
recently shed. She has moved a half-mile north of her previous capture
locations; again, she is found curled near a tortoise burrow.

Fast-forward to January, 2012.  Remarkably,
the uniquely-patterned female eastern diamondback, first observed as an adult
in 2004, is again found on the surface near a tortoise burrow (this time close
to her 2008 burrow).  A solid five feet in length, with a rattle as long as a
man’s finger, she is in the prime of her life. A considerable swollen mass, a
prey bolus, lumps conspicuously midway down her body.  It’s not big enough to
be an adult cottontail (a common prey item for adult diamondbacks). Someone in
our party mentions fox squirrel, another, cotton rat. Her back is dirty with
sand and today she is in no mood for modeling (i.e., photos). And we don’t want
to disturb her. We do manage to snap a quick shot, before leaving her alone.

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Eastern diamondback

We continue to survey for snakes,
enjoying the splendor of the longleaf savanna. At one point I frighten a group
of piglets, oddly Momma-less as they appear quite small. Piebald in pattern and not
much bigger than footballs, they flee squealing before huddling in a large palmetto
clump; they are sure cute and remind me of my plump rat terriers, albeit
hooved. Wild pigs are an introduced species, of course, and their affects on
the local ecology, including our snake fauna, are not well understood.

Adult rattlesnakes are potentially
long-lived, with adults sometimes reaching ages of 20-30 plus years in the wild.
These animals are durable, resourceful, and resilient; only two-three large
meals per year can serve to keep a rattler fat and sassy. But as for a venomous
snake attaining its maximum age, residing on a protected landscape far from
roads and cars, far from humans, is probably a necessity.

As I hike my mind swirls with
questions about the life of our female diamondback. First found as an adult eight
years, she is certainly no youngster (we can comfortably estimate that she is now
a minimum of 12-15 years old). Assuming that she has mated and successfully
reproduced (this occurs every other year, beginning at around four years of
age), by now some of the snakes that comprised her litters have had children of
their own. It’s safe to say this rattler is a Grandma.

The naturalist in me would love to
read her autobiography—to learn more about where she’s been, who she’s met,
what she’s eaten…where she likes to hunt, and why she is smitten, seemingly,
with using tortoise burrows for winter dens (remnant pine stumps and the holes
of nine-banded armadillos, popular diamondback retreats, are common on-site).

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Eastern diamondback

Questions I have for her include: Remember
that wildfire of ’09, the one that crashed and burned hot, killing thousands of
pines along the edge of the bay—where did you shelter to avoid harm? Did you move
soon after the fire to a new location, leaving a fat caterpillar track in the
soft, new ash? Now, I know that 2011 wasn’t the first severe drought to visit
south Georgia in your lifetime; when surface water is scarce, do you drink, as
tortoise sometimes do, from the ephemeral pools of rainwater that puddle in the
mouths of burrows?

Interestingly, many of the tortoise
burrow aprons here bear fresh tracks of bobcats. Why this is so, I wish I knew.
This causes me to ponder her history with enemies. As a younger gal, was she
ever stalked by an indigo snake, shadowed by a red-tailed hawk, or
pawed by a bobcat? The jaws and talons of these predators take their fair share
of Crotalus adamanteus, especially smaller rattlesnakes. She has escaped
them thus far, and I am rooting for her, as I hope to see her on a future snake
hike. When again we’ll share unblinking stares, briefly, before going our
separate ways.     

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