The observations I made of rattlesnakes is just that… observations, there is no scientific study I am aware that supports what I appear to have seen, but I have noticed it – more than once now.
The eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) is a legendary animal in the southeast United States. William Bartram mentions it several times during his travels through Florida in the 1770’s. His Florida nickname “Pug Puggy” actually came from an incident where he killed a large one in a garden of a Seminole camp. Almost every story about the colonial/settling period of state, whether fiction or non-fiction, includes this snake. They are the largest venomous snake in the U.S., reaching up to six feet, and can have the girth of a man’s arm. They have a large head, holding large venom glands, and have a strike range of 33% their body length – the stuff of legends.
However, few people of died from this animal. One website list 53 fatal snakebites in the United States since 1900, 11 are listed “prior to 1900”. Of the 53 snakebites, 34 (64%) were from rattlesnakes – all 11 (100%) of the “prior to 1900” were rattlesnakes. However, there are a reported 16 species of rattlesnakes in the U.S., only three live in the southeast. From this list, there are only three confirmed Eastern Diamondback bites (5%), and an additional 7 that “may” have been. They were identified as rattlesnakes and the victims lived in the southeast, but the bite could have been from the timber or pygmy rattlesnake. The vast majority of lethal rattlesnake bites come from out west. Granted, in the early part of our state’s history many rattlesnake bites went unreported, however 3 confirmed deaths (10 possible) since we became a state is not that many when compared to the number of Floridians who have died in automobile accidents or violent crimes. That said, this is still a legendary animal that many fear, and the snake lives on Pensacola Beach.
In the past month, I have received several photographs of the eastern diamondback seen in the National Seashore. The observation – they seem to be more common when we are not around. No doubt, they were probably once common on the island. Many are surprised by this because the only way to access Santa Rosa Island, initially, was to swim – but rattlesnakes are good swimmers. They do not prefer the water, but have no problem crossing it. They are primarily consumers of rodents, taken prey as large as rabbits if they can, and hunt primarily at night – so viewing during the day is not common.
However, when the road to Pickens was closed after Hurricane Ivan, daytime encounters with eastern diamondbacks increased. There were numerous reports of individuals seeing them moving around the park. Then the road re-opened, and no one saw them anymore. Hurricane Nate caused enough damage that the park, once again, had to close for repairs – and the photos began to come in. It will be interesting to see if the number of encounters begins to decline no that it has re-opened. Are these snakes aware of our presence and seek refuge? It would be nice to know they did, but both Ivan and Nate arrived in the fall when rattlesnakes begin to move for breeding. How many of these snakes would be seen whether the road was open or not. I know when the road is open I do not hear as much from the public. I also know that recently FWC was requesting reports of encounters with this snake because they feared it was declining across the state. Along with several other species of local snakes – such as the Southern Hognose (Heterodon simus) and the Florida Pine Snake (Pituophis melanolucas migitus), they were asking the public to report sightings. They recent removed the eastern diamondback from this list – suggesting that encounters were more common than they thought. Again, maybe a case of “I’m here but I’m hiding”.
For me, it is an interesting observation. I find the animal fascinating, maybe because of its legendary status and rare encounters, but I find it fascinating nonetheless. I certainly understand the safety concerns with having this animal so close to us, but the records of bites and fatalities suggests the threat is not as large as we perceive it. I would certainly recommend homeowners maintain their property as to reduce the risk of an encounter, but know most do – or else you would be seeing more of them. As with sharks, I for one am glad to know they are still around.