The threat of rattlesnakes to people who are active in the outdoors is real. If you ever come across a rattlesnake in the wild, it may try and bite you if certain events transpire.
Why Do Rattlesnakes Bite People?
Rattlesnakes bite people mostly out of self-defense when they feel threatened.
Even pet rattlesnakes or ones that have lived near humans and farm animals will bite under provocation. Even rattlesnake breeders can be bitten if they get too complacent when handling them. In the outdoors, most people are bitten when they accidentally step on a rattlesnake or get too close when it is hidden in the brush. A rattlesnake could also not try to bite, but only to scare the would-be attacker.
Rattlesnakes also have small brains and respond to heat signatures of human feet, so they may think it is actually a meal. This is especially true if you try to pick it up with your hands. If you have a pet rattlesnake it is less likely to bite because it will have become more comfortable with humans. A stressed rattlesnake that is hungry is more likely to bite or flee than one that is full of food and relaxed. Even though rattlesnakes are dangerous to humans, it’s important to remember that people are much bigger than they are, so it is expected that one to feel threatened when a human approaches.
Rattlesnakes are excellent at remaining hidden and camouflaged which helps them ambush prey and avoid predators. They can blend in well in tall grasses and rocky landscapes. Most likely, the snake wants to be left alone and will only become aggressive towards a human when threatened.
Does a Rattlesnake Strike When It Sees You?
It is believed by many people that rattlesnakes do not see very well, and this is in fact true. Rattlesnakes are night-time hunters and respond mostly to body heat signatures, smell, and sounds. The eyesight is just good enough to pick out general shapes, but not fine details.
Rattlesnakes have pits on the sides of their face near their eyes (hence the term ‘pit vipers’) that pick up heat signatures of animals. This has an overall field of reception of about 100 degrees in front of them. This gives them an almost ‘night vision goggle’ ability. The information received by these pits helps create the image of an animal in the rattlesnake’s brain. Once they interpret this as prey, they can then plan their strike. These pit membranes are so sensitive they can even tell the difference between live stationary plants and moving prey at night. The eyes of animals, which are the hottest part of their bodies are easily spotted by these pits.
What Makes a Rattlesnake Bite Versus Flee?
Do Rattlesnakes Want to Bite You?
Rattlesnakes do not want to bight you if they can tell you are not food. They may actually not even use their venom to get rid of you. Many people are bitten by rattlesnakes and only recieve a “dry bite” where no venom is injected. This is why most people do not get extremely sick or die due to rattlesnake bites, along with other factors. Once the bite is completed, the rattlesnake will likely attempt to flee.
Rattlesnakes want to preserve their energy and venom for prey, so they will choose to bite when all other options have failed. If you try to kill or capture the rattlesnake, it will try and bite you to survive. Rattlesnakes are also not mind-readers, so they cannot tell what your intentions are. Children, especially are at risk because they get curious about snakes and try to pick them up or poke at them.
Does a Rattlesnake Give Warning Before Striking?
Rattlesnakes will bite a last-resort, unless they are directly stepped on. Before that, they will:
- Pretend to be very aggressive and expose their fangs
- Lift their heads above the ground
- Shake their body and coil
- Rattle their tail as a warning
A rattlesnake will rattle its tail and coil up before it strikes, but not always. It may need to strike a dangerous animal or human quickly so that it can survive and will skip the rattling process. Baby rattlesnakes may not have grown a rattle yet and will strike if they need to. Rattles also fall off when the snake sheds its skin? and will need to grow back?
Can a Rattlesnake Strike If It’s Not Coiled Up?
A rattlesnake can strike within a certain range, and this depends on its overall body length. Most rattlesnakes can strike outwards beyond their laying position between 1/3 and 1/2 of its total body length. Rattlesnakes usually strike without coiling up or rattling when they are stepped on. If they have no time to prepare, they will strike in fear and then flee. Coiling allows the rattler to make a warning and also get the best body position to launch an attack at an animal.
Rattlesnakes cannot jump, so they rely on their forward lunge to strike. This may appear as if the snake is jumping, but this is not so. Rattlesnakes are also the fastest striking venomous snakes, so you may not even see them bite you if you blink your eyes. This is for a reason too, they need to be quick to catch small prey like birds and rodents.
Will a Rattlesnake Bite Without Rattling Its Tail?
Yes, they will. If the rattlesnake is ambushed or stepped on, it will make a quick strike with no warning. A fast-moving hiker or dog that comes upon them with no warning will alert them with their vibration. The rattlesnake will then bite if they decide they cannot make a quick escape. The ankles are prime targets for rattlesnakes, so you need to look carefully when walking through tall grasses. Also do not provoke the rattlesnake in any way, such as poking it or throwing rocks at it. A rattlesnake that is aroused to anger versus one that is afraid and ambushed may have a different quantity and toxicity of venom that it injects. You may receive a little or a lot of venom, or only a dry bite. So, it is best not to push your luck.
Rattlesnakes that are shedding will lose their rattle and can still bite you before the new rattle has time to grow. Baby rattlesnakes will also not have time to grow a rattle, as they are not born with one. Rattlesnakes that are pregnant, or wet (such as while swimming) may not rattle effectively. Nevertheless, they are still very venomous without their rattle.
Even though there is always the risk of being bitten by a rattlesnake when you go outdoors, the risk is in fact very small. Most bites occur during the months of April and October, or when the weather warms up. If you hear hissing or rattling nearby, just turn around and go the other way. If you keep your eyes open and stay on the path in front of you, you are likely safe from rattlesnake bites.
Nick Klamecki is a certified Fire and Workplace Safety expert with 15 years experience in product research and testing. He has a degree in Economics from U.C. Davis, is an active outdoorsman and spent years ensuring the safety of special needs children. Nick researches and tests workplace, industrial and safety products and provides advice on their safe use.