Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
and wrestle with rivals, court and mate, give birth, and attend their young. They vis-
it certain places repeatedly within well-circumscribed home ranges. They occasionally
and inexplicably climb trees. And, like the big male that bent a fern out of his future
strike path, mentioned in chapter 1, they often surprise us.
After the slides, with the audience standing safely back, I hooked a timber rattler out
of its container and onto the floor. Keeping an eye on the four-foot reptile, I explained
that these snakes are easily avoided, accidents are rare, and with proper medical treat-
ment even serious bites are survivable. Then I pointed out that there are more than
three thousand species of snakes, some with lifestyles we can scarcely imagine. About
10 percent are vipers, with hypodermic needle-like fangs for injecting a cocktail of im-
mobilizing, digestive venom; thus armed, vipers eat items exceeding their own weight,
so imagine me consuming a 200-pound hamburger without benefit of hands or silver-
ware! Two-thirds of vipers, including copperheads and cottonmouths, have infrared-
imaging pits behind the nostrils, and of those pitvipers, thirty-seven New World species
possess a noisemaker on their tails. The rattle is a marvelously interlocking set of horn-
like segments, vibrated about sixty times per second by specialized shaker muscles and
used to warn away enemies.
While our audience admired the demonstration rattlesnake's calm demeanor I de-
scribed the species' natural history, based on pioneering studies by Bill Brown, Marty
Martin, and Howard Reinert, as well as my postdoctoral associate Rulon Clark. 8 People
responded to the live rattler with comments like “beautiful,” “awesome,” and “isn't it
wonderful to be so close!” Their questions ranged from “Can you tell his age by the num-
ber of rattles?” to “Are rattlers evil?” First I tackled the easy one, noting that a segment
is added roughly twice a year when a snake sheds its skin, but because old segments
are worn off, counts don't correspond to age. Next I said that having been an ambulance
driver and army medic, without special knowledge of theology, I regard evil as exclus-
ively human. In the course of appreciating rattlesnakes, I speculated, we might contem-
plate violence and mortality without anthropocentric baggage, maybe gain a little clar-
ity in such matters.
On Saturday morning a dozen newly primed snake enthusiasts joined me at Tangle-
wood Nature Center in Elmira, just north of the Pennsylvania border and adjacent to
Frenchman's Bluff. Our leaders were retired ophthalmologist Art Smith and his daugh-
ter, Polly Smith-Blackwell, lifelong area residents who serve as preserve stewards.
Over the next three hours they guided us to several rock outcrops under openings in
the forest canopy. By early summer, males and nonbreeding female rattlesnakes have
moved off into the woods to ambush mice and chipmunks, but gravid females bask close
to their winter den, the better to maintain elevated temperatures for developing em-
bryos. The first few clearings we visited yielded common gartersnakes, resplendent in
black and yellow stripes, but no rattlers. As we approached the last outcrop, though, a
couple of dozen yards out, Art's upraised hand signaled us to halt. Other than the lead-
ers, no one in the group had ever seen a wild timber.
Art pointed toward the rocks. One by one our guests distinguished scaly loops from
leaves and fallen branches. Soon these newly minted snake hunters looked like ama-
teur ornithologists, except their binoculars were angled downward and they were whis-
pering about a timber rattlesnake. Birds fluttered and sang overhead, but the people
stared straight ahead at the snake. She was perhaps three and a half feet long, coiled in
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