12 Things You Should Know About Rattlesnakes

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johnaudrey, iStock/Getty Images Plus

Coiled defensively, its head reared and tail vibrating, a threatened rattlesnake commands respect. These venomous serpents have evolved one of nature’s most dramatic warning systems in their signature segmented rattles. But as we’ll see, their powerful bites are not the only thing rattlesnakes have going for them.

1. Rattlesnake scientific names refer to musical instruments.

All 36 species of rattlesnake are native to the Americas, with an overall range stretching from southern Canada to central Argentina and concentrated in the American Southwest. They can survive in all kinds of habitats where their prey—birds, rodents, amphibians, and other small animals—is plentiful. Rattlesnakes belong to two genera in the subfamily Crotalinae (the pit vipers): Crotalus, from the Greek word for castanet; and Sistrurus, invoking an ancient Egyptian musical instrument. Both genus names undoubtedly refer to the snakes’ characteristic rattles.

2. Venoms in rattlesnake bites are highly variable—even among members of the same species.

Each type of rattlesnake bite venom out there is an intricate cocktail loaded with different enzymes, toxins, and other compounds. Hemotoxins, which break down capillary walls and hinder blood circulation, are key ingredients in most of them. Neurotoxins, which attack the victim’s nervous system and cause seizures or paralysis, are another weapon. Venom composition can be extremely variable among individuals of the same species; for example, some timber rattlesnakes living in the American South have more neurotoxic venom than their northern counterparts do.

3. Rattlesnakes bite with movable fangs.

Cobras, mambas, and other snakes inject their venom into their victims through a pair of proteroglyphous, or fixed, fangs near the front of their mouths. Those snakes have to bite down and hang on to their prey to deliver the venomous punch. Rattlesnakes take a different approach. Like copperheads and Old World vipers, they have solenoglyphous fangs, which can actually swing forward and allow the rattlers to strike quickly, inject venom, and then back off. When the fangs aren’t being used, they’re pulled back and pressed against the roof of the snakes’ mouths.

4. Most rattlesnake bites are not fatal.

Rattlesnakes are the leading purveyor of venomous snakebites in North America. About 7000 to 8000 people are bitten each year, but thanks to effective antivenins, only five or six bites prove fatal.

5. Disembodied rattlesnake heads can still bite.

In 2018, a man in Corpus Christi, Texas found a western diamondback rattlesnake in his backyard and decapitated it with a shovel. Imagine his surprise when the head bit him on the hand. The man lived, but there have been cases of detached heads fatally envenomating people; the biting reflex in many venomous snakes remains active after the animal’s death.

6. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest venomous snake in North America.

Native to the southeastern U.S., the eastern diamondback can grow nearly 8 feet long and weigh more than 15 pounds. It’s the largest rattlesnake on Earth and the biggest venomous snake on the North American continent.

7. Rattlesnakes start growing rattles after their first shed.

Each rattlesnake is born with a nubby scale at the tip of its tail called a pre-button. After the snake’s first shed of their skin, the pre-button gets replaced with a button, a larger, hourglass-shaped scale. Later sheds add hollow, interlocking segments of keratin to the end of the tail. By vibrating the segments, the snakes create its distinctive rattling noise. Although it’s a myth that rattlesnakes must vibrate their tails before striking, they do use their rattles to warn approaching animals or people.

8. The number of rattle segments has nothing to do with the rattlesnake’s age.

A popular myth suggests that each rattle section represents a year in the animal’s life. In reality, a rattlesnake can shed multiple times, and gain multiple rattle segments, in a single year. Segments can also wear down and break off over time.

9. Rattlesnakes don’t lay eggs.

Like anacondas, rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous: They produce eggs that hatch inside their bodies and give birth to live, fully formed young. Depending on the species, a rattlesnake litter can include anywhere from one to 25 infants.

10. Not every rattlesnake species has a rattle.

Crotalus catalinensis, the Santa Catalina rattlesnake, has evolved to be rattle-free. It lives on Isla Santa Catalina, a small island in the Gulf of California. Although it belongs to the same genus as diamondbacks and timber rattlers, the snakes’ ancestors may have lost their appendages because there are fewer predators and big, trample-y mammals on the island to warn with menacing noises.

11. Rattlesnakes help plants by distributing seeds.

In a 2018 study, researchers looked into the guts of 50 dead rattlesnakes preserved at museums. They found 971 plant seeds that were likely carried by the rodents the snakes had eaten. When a rattlesnake devours some hapless mouse, the seeds it carried in its cheek pouches make their way through the snake’s digestive tract intact. By pooping out the seeds, the snakes help to restore plant growth in its habitat.

12. Benjamin Franklin admired timber rattlers.

Benjamin Franklin thought that rattlesnakes embodied uniquely American diplomacy and toughness. “She never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her,” he wrote in a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1775. “Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?”

He also noted that, like all snakes, timber rattlers don’t have eyelids, which made them naturally watchful. “She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance,” Franklin wrote.

Rattlesnakes later became symbols of America’s war for independence. Christopher Gadsden, a colonel from South Carolina, designed a personal flag to be flown on five ships belonging to the Continental Army. The bright yellow banner sported a coiled rattlesnake emblem and the caption “Don’t Tread on Me.” It remains popular among advocates of smaller federal government today.

15 Facts About the Westminster Dog Show

Sarah Stier/Getty Images
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

One of America's oldest sporting events is also its most slobbery. This year, the Westminster Kennel Club dog show returns to New York City for the 144th time, promising one preeminent pooch the coveted title of "Best in Show" and a lifetime supply of positive reinforcement. While the show has evolved over its many years, it remains a beguiling spectacle for dog fanatics and casual observers alike. Here are 15 facts to get you competition-ready.

1. The original show was for gun dogs.

Champion Stingray of Derryabah, aka Skipper, a British Lakeland Terrier, wins Best In Show at the 92nd Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Gardens, New York City, February 1968
H. William Tetlow, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Around 1876, a group of sportsmen began to hold regular meet-ups in a Manhattan bar to swap hunting stories. Their trusty canine companions eventually made their way into the conversation, and the idea for a dog club was formed. The group met at a bar in The Westminster Hotel, and aptly named themselves the Westminster Breeding Association (later the Westminster Kennel Club). It was after helping to stage a dog show in Philadelphia that the group decided to hold their own to compare and showboat their pups.

The first show, featuring primarily Setters and Pointers, was an immediate success. A total of 1201 dogs entered the first year, with tens of thousands of spectators by the second day. The first prizes included such items as a "Gold and Silver Mounted Pearl Handled Revolver"—an appropriate reward for an active hunter.

2. The show has seen its share of tragedy.

A photo of J.P. Morgan.
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A champion collie belonging to J.P. Morgan, who spent millions on his obsession with dogs and competed in Westminster regularly, drowned itself. Its trainer called the dog's death "a clear case of suicide" in an 1895 New York Times article.

3. You don't have to be young to win.

Vintage Westminster Dog Show photo.
Lady Iddo at the 53th Westminster Dog Show in 1935.
Imagno/Getty Images

In 2009, a 10-year-old Sussex spaniel named Stump (registered name: Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee) broke the record for oldest dog ever to win "Best in Show." He later appeared on the cover of AARP magazine.

4. Nepotism has made its way into the competition.

Westminster Dog Show 2019
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Dog-judging has always been subjective. Judges at the first modern dog show ever, in Newcastle in 1859, were also the owners of the show's two winners. Today, the Westminster Kennel Club website acknowledges that's it's not a precise science. "Each judge, applying their interpretation of the standard, gives their opinion on that day on which dog best represents its breed," it explains.

5. Life has imitated art.

A dog competes in the Masters Agility Championship during the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2018.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Parker Posey, famous for playing a manic, metal-mouthed Weimaraner-owner in the 2000 dog show parody Best in Show, has also spent some time backstage at the Westminster Dog Show. As she told The Wire at the 2014 WKC Dog Show, she met some personalities resembling her own persnickety character while on set: "[Director Christopher Guest] brought over a professional groomer. She came over right before a take and she criticized our dog. She said, 'The coat's all wrong.'"

6. The top dog gets the royal treatment.

The 2019 winner of the Westminster Dog Show.
Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

The winner of the Westminster Dog Show traditionally eats a celebratory lunch at famed Broadway watering hole Sardi's—breaking New York City's health codes which prevent animals from entering restaurants.

7. It's not all about good looks.

Maximus from the Westminster Dog Show 2019.
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The show doesn't only value looks. A two-legged dog named Nellie participated in the first Westminster show ever in 1877, and 1980's "Best in Show" was a true underdog: Cinnar, a Siberian husky missing part of its ear, won with handler Trish Kanzler—one of the few amateurs to ever win the title.

8. The dogs are refined, but their names sometimes aren't.

Westminster Dog Show 2015 photo.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The 2015 WKC Dog Show featured a Pomeranian named Starfire's Spank Me Hard Call Me Crazy, a basset hound named Easthill Broxden Woodland Lettuce Entertain You, and a border terrier named McHill's His Royal Highness Prince Gizmo House of Gremlin.

9. Things have even turned criminal.

A very good boy at a dog show.
MarijaRadovic/iStock via Getty Images

Eight dogs belonging to one prominent New York City dog breeder were poisoned during the 1895 Westminster Dog Show. Despite the story making the front page of The New York Times, no suspect was ever prosecuted for the crime.

10. A bunch of your favorite breeds have never won "best in show."

A chihuahua poking its head out.
Paffy69/iStock via Getty Images

Despite being a favorite among dog-lovers, there has never been a chihuahua, Great Dane, dachshund, or golden retriever crowned "Best in Show." Here's the full list of breeds to never win, as of 2019.

11. Mutts are slowly making their way into the competition.

A dog looking at the camera.
BiancaGrueneberg/iStock via Getty Images

In 2014, mutts, a.k.a. "All-Americans," were allowed to participate in Westminster's Agility Championship for the first time since 1884—but they’re still ineligible for "Best in Show."

12. Labs are voted most popular, but not head of the class.

Lacey, a Labrador, runs through a sport course during a press preview for the Westminster Dog Show on February 12, 2015 in New York City
Andrew Burton, Getty Images

Despite being the most popular dog in the country, a Labrador retriever has never won "Best in Show." The reason? Experts say their friendly temperament prevents them from desiring the spotlight. Labs can also be disqualified for deviating by half an inch from height standards (between 22.5 and 24.5 inches for males and 21.5 and 23.5 for females)—a regulation that was nearly challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1994.

13. Some practices are ancient—and weird.

A dog receiving a prize at a dog show.
Apple Tree House/iStock via Getty Images

While nowadays some breeders cut their dogs' tails for aesthetic reasons, the practice originated with 5th century BCE Greek statesman Alcibiades, who cut the tail of his dog so that the Athenians would have something else to talk about rather than Alcibiades.

14. The dogs have friends (and relatives) in high places.

A photo of a Portuguese water dog.
Ines Arnshoff/iStock via Getty Images

Matisse the Portuguese water dog (officially registered as GCH Claircreek Impression De Matisse) has quite the pedigree. In addition to being the most decorated male show dog in the United States, he is also related to the country's former First Family; his cousin, Sunny, belongs to the Obama family.

15. Naturally, there have been some great underdog stories.

A very tiny dog at the Westminster Dog Show.
Matthew Eisman/Getty Images

Tickle Em Jock, "Best in Show" winner at the 1911 Westminster Dog Show, was a Scottish terrier and a dark horse to boot. His original owner was a butcher who sold him for 2 pounds (or about $15), which turned out to be the Scottish terrier's lucky break. After a few years with trainer Andrew Albright, Tickle Em Jock was valued at $5000. Once, after winning the title of "best of breed," the scrappy champ bit a judge's wrist.

A version of this list first ran in 2016.

Therapy Puppy Provides Comfort to Grieving Families at North Carolina Funeral Home

AllenSphoto, iStock via Getty Images
AllenSphoto, iStock via Getty Images

Emotional support animals have become common sights at places like airports, and now the funeral industry is embracing their therapeutic benefits. As WGAL reports, Macon Funeral Home in North Carolina now has a Bernese mountain dog puppy to provide comfort to grieving clients.

Nine-week-old Mochi isn't a fully trained therapy dog yet, but she's already winning over visitors. Tori McKay, Macon's funeral office administrator, had dreamed of bringing a grief-support dog into the business for a decade. Shortly after her 30th birthday on January 4, she and her husband "decided that Mochi would make a wonderful addition to our family and this decade of our lives," she wrote on the funeral home's website.

McKay chose a Bernese mountain dog for the breed's affectionate personality, relaxed disposition, and successful history as an emotional support animal. Between ages 6 months to 1 year, Mochi will receive therapy dog training in Asheville. The plan is to eventually make her available to families upon request and bring her to nursing homes to meet with residents. Until then, the puppy is meeting guests in a more casual setting as she gets used to socializing with strangers.

"Stop by and meet her, she loves making new friends!" a post on the funeral home's Facebook page reads.

[h/t WGAL]

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