Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
venomous” soon ran in the Science section of the Times 5 —but the idea of seekingthem
out must have sounded preposterous, because even she responded with irony: “Ah, yes,
get my travel agent.” I was only sorry that because timber rattlers are restricted to the
eastern United States I had no prospects for setting up such a trip.
Western rattlesnakes still frequent the Berkeley campus, but I chose timbers for their
prominent cultural and conservation status. John Smith mentioned them in his 1621
Map of Virginia, with a Description of the Countrey, and Revolutionary War flags with
iconic rattlers warned “Don't tread on me.” In a 1775 Pennsylvania Journal essay, Ben-
jamin Franklin opined, “Her eye exceeds in brilliance that of any other animal and she
has no eyelids. She may therefore be esteemed as an emblem of vigilance. She never
begins an attack, or, when once engaged, ever surrenders. She therefore is an emblem
of magnanimity and true courage. She never wounds until she has generously given no-
tice even to her enemy, and cautioned against the danger of treading on her. The poison
of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is the
certain destruction of her enemies. The rattles are just thirteen—exactly the number of
colonies united in America. One of these rattles, singly, is incapable of producing sound;
but the ringing of thirteen is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living. She is beautiful
in youth and her beauty increases with age; her tongue is also blue, and forked as light-
ning, and her abode is among the impenetrable rocks.” 6
Although surely many of Franklin's three million fellow colonists disliked timber rat-
tlers, they couldn't cause irreversible declines in a widespread, abundant species—yet
scarcely two centuries later, with our population a hundred times larger, those elegant
animals are endangered or extirpated in parts of their range. This predicament stems
from a collision between snake biology and human prejudice, although timbers rarely
bite us and are important natural predators. The females are adapted to low mortality
and slow population turnover: in the Northeast they require a decade to mature, breed
two to four times in a twenty-five-year lifetime, and bear about ten large young per litter.
These snakes are thus demographically fragile, and because they visibly aggregate at
dens, marauding people have wiped out entire populations; in some regions only isol-
ated colonies persist where rattlers were once common. Moreover, because they travel
hundreds of yards between winter dens and summer hunting ranges, they need large
chunks of continuous habitat—all in all, a textbook case of vulnerability. 7
Fast-forward to June 2001, after I'd moved to Cornell and joined a regional conser-
vation group. Finger Lakes Land Trust was purchasing Steege Hill because it encom-
passes a timber rattlesnake den, across the Chemung River from a population on the
Nature Conservancy's Frenchman's Bluff Preserve. Now the Trust wanted to spotlight
timbers in their Talks and Treks lecture series. I was finally getting my chance to pro-
mote rattlesnake ecotourism!
At a Thursday night gathering, I started by recounting the biology of black-tailed
rattlesnakes in Arizona, where Dave Hardy and I had watched individuals for more than
a decade, capturing many aspects of their behavior in photographs. I explained that the
first image was of a rattler in threat display, ready to strike, but rather than acting ag-
gressive, it was re acting out of fear at the close approach of a person. As researchers, I
explained, we strived not to disturb snakes and therefore rarely saw defensive postures;
thus the other photos would illustrate their complex, idiosyncratic lifestyles. Blacktails,
like timber rattlesnakes, hunt mammals, lie around after big meals, search for mates
Search WWH ::

Custom Search