If you ever watched a movie set in the desert you are familiar with the sound of a rattlesnake shaking its rattle. This sound is used to signify danger lurking and even people who have not met a rattlesnake in person are sure to recognize it. But can all rattlesnakes rattle? Do baby rattlesnakes have rattles?
No, they do not have rattles yet. The rattle of a rattlesnake grows each time the snake sheds its skin, and since newborn babies have not shed their skin yet, the rattle has not grown. Instead, they have a small knob called a “button” at the end of their tail.
Therefore, baby rattlesnakes cannot give a warning before they strike. Together with the fact that they are mall and much harder to see, it is more difficult to avoid getting bitten by them. Luckily, they do not have as much venom as fully-grown adult snakes.
Even though young rattlesnakes look dissimilar to adults, there are enough shared characteristics that make it possible to recognize them. Baby rattlesnakes have the same, often diamond-shaped, markings on their body as adults do, You can also recognize venomous snakes by their comparatively thick middle part of the body – non-venomous snakes are mostly thinner and of equal thickness throughout.
Both infant and adult snakes have a roughly triangle-shaped head that connects to a neck that is slimmer than the rest of their body.
Rattlesnakes belong to the family of pit vipers. As the name makes clear, pit vipers are distinguished by having two pits below their nostrils which help them sense heat and locate warm-blooded prey. Babies, as well as adults, have these pits.
Both young and old snakes also display the same warning behavior before they strike: they coil, hiss, and rattle all at the same time. Baby snakes will make the same movements, the only difference is that you will not hear a rattling sound.
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Are Baby Rattlesnakes More Dangerous Than Adults?
For some reason, the myth that the bite of a baby rattlesnake is more dangerous than the bite of an adult keeps being spread, even though it has been disproven multiple times. The background of this myth is the idea that, as opposed to adult snakes, baby snails cannot yet control the amount of venom they inject with a bite.
In fact, the amount of venom is only one factor that plays into the severity of a snakebite. There are always more things to consider, though; factors related to the snake as well as the victim of the bite, like the medical history, the placement of the bite, as well as the physical size.
When it comes to snake-related factors, the two most important ones are the venom composition and the quantity of venom. Snake venom is developed to do two things: immobilize or kill prey and aid with digestion. Thus, the composition of the venom is different with regards to what the snake in question mostly eats.
Since baby rattlesnakes mostly eat small prey like lizards and frogs, their venom is composed of fast-acting neurotoxins, so that the frogs, for example, do not get to hop away before it begins to have an effect. Adult rattlesnakes consume larger mammals, mostly rodents and squirrels.
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Because those larger animals take longer to be digested, it makes sense for the venom to have a higher percentage of enzymes that aid in digestion. Therefore, when compared drop to drop, the venom of baby rattlesnakes is indeed more potent. Nevertheless, when it comes to venom quantity, the adult snake is clearly the winner: adult rattlesnakes produce and inject about 20 to 50 times the amount of venom that baby snakes produce!
While it is therefore not true that the bites of baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous, any bite should be brought quickly to medical attention. It is best, of course, not to be bitten at all – and this is also what the rattlesnakes themselves would want.
They consider a venomous bite a last-resort defense mechanism and will give you plenty of warnings before they resort to this method. They will hiss at you, shake their rattle, and often give so-called “dry bites” without venom.
When you notice a rattlesnake displaying these signs of aggression, it is best to simply leave it alone. It is not likely to follow you, rattlesnakes do not want to eat you – they only get three to five feet long, after all – and just want to be undisturbed. When you are in an area where you know there are rattlesnakes, simply pay attention when climbing, walking, and turning over rocks. Give these animals space and admire them from a distance.