Rattler!  Did you know that the western diamondback rattlesnake Crotalus atrox can rattle its tail continuously for hours at frequencies approaching 90 Hz (90 times per sec)? This is twice as fast as a hummingbird’s wings

Nailing the Noise: The tail-end of the rattlesnake has a series of hollow “buttons” linked together, each made of keratin (found in our nails) and modified from the snake’s scales. At birth, there is only one pre-button, but each time a snake sheds its skin, another button emerges at the end. It’s a myth that one can tell the age of a rattlesnake from the number of buttons, because a snake may molt variably in a year and the buttons do break off with use.  

Sound production in animals, is energetically expensive. But the rattler is an evolutionary marvel, optimized for minimal cost and maximal efficiency (for the aficionados, only 0.015 micromoles ATP consumed per gram muscle per twitch). Surprisingly, energy use is independent of temperature and rate of rattling. There are six sets of tailshaker muscles, arranged at 45 degree angles to the axis of the tail. All six are active during rattling, with muscles on one side contracting while those on the other side relax. This out of phase contraction generates an oscillating motion seen in the gif image

Once you’ve heard a live rattler, you’ll never forget it, says Gnotic Pasta, who has plenty of snake stories to share. Do you have any cool facts or anecdotes about rattlers? Also check out Buddhini Samarasinghe scary post on Bite Reflex of a Snake here: http://goo.gl/Lz7oBN

▶ BBC Video (3:50 min) on high speed filming of the rattle (look behind the rattle for the forked tongue darting out!): Slow motion rattlesnake – Slo Mo #3 – Earth Unplugged

▶ Great basin rattlesnake Crotalus viridis lutosus filmed by our intrepid G plusser Gnotic Pasta  :  http://vimeo.com/64675533

▶ REF (old, but free): Structural correlates of speed and endurance in skeletal muscle: the rattlesnake tailshaker muscle. Schaeffer et al. http://jeb.biologists.org/content/199/2/351.long

H/T to Amy Robinson Sterling  for sharing the gif that inspired this post (http://goo.gl/pzi4Yv). 


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128 Responses to Rattler!

  1. Must. Stop. Watching. Rattle.

    It’s hypnotic!

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Ssssnakes are on the agenda this #SSSScienceSSSSSunday   Jim Sutton  🙂

  3. Kawthar A says:

    Ooops…this is my nightmare tonight 😦 interest post though Rajini 🙂

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    I hope I didn’t rattle your nerves there, Jim Sutton ?

  5. Dr. Cassone says:

    Nice post. Very informative. We get a lot of rattlesnakes in my area especially this time of year.

  6. Rajini Rao says:

    I was surprised that the rattlesnake is the subject of quite detailed analysis because the tailshaker muscles are among the fastest and most efficient in the animal world. 

  7. Rajini Rao says:

    I hope you unwind and shed your inhibitions, Jim Sutton . 

    I’m shakin’ to the music, Chad Haney 🙂

  8. Rajini Rao says:

    Gnotic Pasta , that one is a beauty that even an ophidiophobian may enjoy. The muted ochre colors of the scales and rocks are lovely. I guess that is part of the camouflage. 

  9. Dr. Cassone says:

    Gnotic Pasta great pic!

  10. Rajini Rao says:

    Gnotic Pasta , we recently interviewed a faculty candidate whose research was on identifying the ion channels that sense the heat in the heat pits of pitvipers (we first made sure that she was not intending to house any venomous snakes in our animal facility 😉

    The research is still controversial: http://www.rationalskepticism.org/biology/pit-vipers-night-vision-explained-t2676.html

  11. Fascinating facts and mesmerizing visual! Growing up in Southern California, I had a couple of encounters and your statement of once one has heard the sound of a rattler you never forget the sound is very true. Unfortunately, rattle snakes are unjustly persecuted by the human race.

  12. Rajini Rao says:

    Vincent Peralta , I guess we intrude on their habitat! Fortunately, in my Maryland garden, I’ve only encountered some harmless but large rat snakes (not sure what they are really). We pick them up with a long branch and drop them off at the forest edge amidst much excitement and hoopla 😉

  13. Fear factor has jumped….tis the time of year to watch out for them out here. So far, I have been lucky & not encountered one in 25 yrs. I am hoping that they squirm away from areas close to the ocean….please just say YES 🙂

  14. Thank you for being a good steward of Mother Earth’s creatures!

  15. Rajini Rao says:

    YES, Cheryl Ann MacDonald 😉

    I don’t have a phobia, but I’d rather not encounter them all the same. 

  16. Jim Carver says:

    We used to have this ranch on the Brazos river in Texas. It had a lot of wildlife. Deer, skunks, coyotes, snakes, scorpions, spiders, armadillos, Ferrel pigs/hogs… you name it.

    I walked up to the trailer on the place one day and there was a rattlesnake about 8-10 in diameter, not sure how long, but it was long . It had a rat halfway in its mouth and at that point was about 12-14 inches in diameter. I had no camera, no gun with me…not even a hoe. It’s defenseless and I am too. I run down to the little farm store and got a hoe and when I got back it was gone.

    Later, the next year in Spring we are selling the place and I’m loading up things. You know how on the last load you just look around and see if there’s anything else. There’s a half full bag of potting soil on the ground, a big one, and I went to pick it up and underneath there is that snake, all coiled up. I knew it was the same one because of the size. Fortunately it’s dormant next to the cool ground. At this point I don’t care about pictures or hoes or anything. I drop the bag and yell to the crew. “We’re outta here, now!” They say but what about such and such? I said forget it. Let’s go!

    It was a pretty place and I don’t miss it. Somebody was going to get seriously hurt, sick for life or killed in that place. 

  17. Rajini Rao says:

    Jim Carver , that’s quite a story. Was it dormant because of cold weather? How could you tell? 

  18. Jim Carver says:

    Rajini Rao The ambient surface temperatures were getting warm that day. But it was still cool next to the ground and the potting soil bag was keeping it insulated. Once I removed the insulating layer, I knew we only had a short time before it would warm up.

  19. Jim Carver says:

    If I had to guess, I would say it was about 12-15 feet long, but I never saw it stretched out or the rattlers. Don’t you know a snake that size they would be huge.

  20. I love your post, not only because they are interesting and informative, but because you make them fun with your (and others’) puns. Rajini Rao , you rock!

  21. Rajini Rao says:

    Duane Mansfield , the punderstorms are hiss-terical. Feel free to adder some of your own 🙂

  22. Azlin Bloor says:

    Another entertaining & informative read, Rajini. Watched the videos & my heart rate’s not gone back to normal yet, which is weird because I didn’t think I was that scared of snakes! I don’t have stories of snakes but I do have a picture of me with a couple of small wriggly snakes on my head! Nope, never going to post it, because I’m not sure if the Medusa factor is as a result of the snakes or my 80s perm job!

  23. only the tail is moving, creeps me out!?!?


  24. Jim Carver says:

    Duane Mansfield You have to get up pretty early in the morning to get within striking distance of Rajini’s puns. Mine tend to be a touch more venomous.

  25. Rajini Rao says:

    Those are the best snakes to sport, Azlin Bloor , do post the picture! I get them too when the weather is humid and my hair takes on a life all its own 🙂 

  26. Jim Carver says:

    Oh come on Azlin Bloor , snakes usually like hares.

  27. Rajini Rao says:

    Hehe, Jim Carver , it’s good to be polite. You might even aspire to be a civil serpent 😉

  28. Jim Carver says:

    Rajini Rao Tryin’ to be a charmer, heh?

  29. Azlin Bloor says:

    Ouch, ouch, ouch Me & Medusa will just go curl up and dye now…

  30. Jim Carver says:

    I used to do extracts for colorants, but the business finally dyed.

  31. I’ve had my own close encounters with those D-backs you described (I was both born & reared up in Texas;- but the story I now will relate takes place in Florida–up near the Georgia border while the worst forest fires on record were burning down hectacre after hectacre of pine upon pinewood forests…and from within my open boxcar I could smell IT first…the smoke that confirmed the forest was ablaze..!

    Now, as the train creeped slowly into the AUBURN, GA. YARD I leaned out of the

    boxes’ doorway and peered oput to my left & then to mylll right…IT was very hazy but I could just make out the tracks to my front, & my sides & my back…And then the train stopped. I then looked around my space one last time and donned my backpack…

    …I looked down from the boxcar’s doorway & grabbed hold of the side the best I could, and launched myself out and down; landing on the gravel with a muffled crunch, facing the car from whence I’d come; blindly unawares of what were 4 inches beyond my boots*★?Well, if ever there should be an Olympic sport for pure VERTICAL HIGH-JUMPING; I most surely will

    qualify…For I projected my body at least 10-15 feet straight up in the air, for at my feet lay the largest, thickest, and longest Diamond-Backed rattler I’d ever seen…or care to ever see again.! Thanks to all of you for your amazing stories & research….(including your punderstorms O:-) )

  32. Rajini Rao says:

    Did the heat flush out the rattler, D.G.O. Fenton ?

  33. Alicia Harrison Sarah Cylon 

  34. Gonna shake, rattle and roll myself away from this post, LOL

  35. It is true that Nature’s creatures can be dangerous, but humans are, by far, the most evil, deviant and dangerous life form on plant Earth. An animal will never attack or kill you because of your skin color, your religious beliefs or political affiliation. Sadly, at least in the U.S., our chances of getting killed by a intoxicated driver, or being assaulted, raped or molested by a fellow human are astronomically higher than getting bitten by a rattler or any animal… yet animals are killed so readily … heavy sigh

  36. I believe that you are correct Jim Carver , even on a good day (not today) , I wouldn’t even come close to matching wits w/ Rajini Rao . If our puns were weighed on a set of scales , well, I wouldn’t have a leg (or rather, any legs) to stand on. I’m just glad that this post didn’t come wrapped in a Boa !

  37. Rajini Rao says:

    BJ Bolender has essss-caped! 🙂

  38. Rajini Rao says:

    Vincent Peralta , I share your empathy for animals. I hope we do a better job in conserving our planet and fellow creatures in the years ahead. We are so well connected online that it should be possible to spread the word. 

  39. Gary Ray R says:

    I can’t believe that someone actually researched that only 0.015 micromoles ATP consumed per gram muscle per twitch  and you found it. Another great and interesting post. Rajini Rao 


    Quick story, I grew up in the desert southwest and rattlers were common.  Have even eaten them and they are not bad at all. 

    My good friend was deathly afraid of rattlers.  I had found an old rattle from a big one and kept it in my pocket.  We were hiking out in the area around Bottomless Lakes State Park, NM and I pulled the rattle out of my pocket surreptitiously.  I was walking ahead of him and I rattled it and yelled Snake!  He jumped and ran and tripped and banged up his knee a bit and was mad as hell.   From then on he was always trying to get me back.  Ahh, the pleasures of being young and a bit of a jerk.

    I like rattlers, another good friend had some for pets, one got lose in his bedroom one weekend and we did find it, but his mom said no more snakes.

    We grew up in a strange land in Roswell.

  40. Jim Carver says:

    Vincent Peralta Depends on where you live. Most of you guys assume that everyone lives in the city just as you probably do.

    I don’t. I’m much more likely to have a problem with a venomous creature here than a human.

  41. Rajini Rao says:

    Gary Ray R , you were quite the rascal! If your boyhood friend had read this post, he would have quickly realized that the rattling sound he heard was much less than 90 Hz and therefore a fake 🙂

    Thank you for sharing those funny memories.  

  42. dont like sneaks why put it up on the screen it ‘s not every one want to look on snake

  43. Sharon Campbell this is a science post and an opportunity to learn and appreciate a fellow living creature. Sorry that you don’t think it is as beautiful as we do. 

  44. Rajini Rao says:

    I have to agree with Sharon Campbell . I don’t like sneaks either 😉

  45. Ajay Malakar says:


  46. Chad Haney says:

    Sneaks back into the conversation. I’m still looking for that python CT.

  47. Jim Carver says:

    it’s not a sneaky snake neither. it warn you. not like salmella chiken.

  48. I really enjoyed Rajini Rao ‘s post.  For as long as I can remember I have loved snake.  I have snake stories….

    As a child, I used to study flashcards of diff. kinds of snakes.  During one of my first camping experiences – I got to see a baby ring-neck snake.  Oh the thrill!!!


    But the coolest snake I’ve seen in its natural habitat was a black rat snake.  (OK – that was 38 years ago.  Possibly a black racer http://srelherp.uga.edu/snakes/colcon.htm).  It was really, really fast.

     It was gorgeous, seriously long, fast, and determined to head straight towards a pool full of young campers that I was responsible for. 

    Because I was a counselor, I ended up having to match wits with what turned out to be a very determined snake.

    Being 80% confident that you know what snake you’re dealing with can get your “feelings” permanently hurt, so I chose to scare it off with a broom.  Each time I blocked its path to the pool, it tried to zip past me while striking at the broom!  I was stunned by how fast it was. 

    The snake kept retreating to the edge of the woods where I could see it watching me from the bushes.  Each time I turned my back, it headed straight for the pool again.  This went on for 5-10 minutes.  Then it gave up its quest … at least until the kids had showered and left.

    The nerve!  =:-0

    Because I adore snakes, I never touched it with the broom.  Gotta say — the aggressiveness and speed of that determined creature really took me by surprise. 

    BTW – If it had pulled the below stunt … I’m pretty sure I would have pissed myself.

    Tail Rattling:

    All rat snakes tend to vibrate their tails rapidly when they feel threatened. This sometimes leads people into mistaking them for rattlesnakes. The sound of the tail twitching back and forth in dead leaves sounds much like the warning sound emitted by the poisonous rattlesnake, leading people to kill the rat snake out of fear.

    Read more: http://www.ehow.com/info_10054376_aggressive-black-rat-snakes.html#ixzz2cMIBSYLG


  49. Rajini Rao says:

    I found a YouTube video of a black snake vibrating its tail in dry leaf cover to impersonate a rattle, Valerie Duncan . A clever mimic, since the black rat snake is not venomous! Black Snake Rattling Tail

    Hats off to you for your bravery, I would have loved to see that encounter (from a safe distance) 🙂

  50. I love rattlesnakes. Unfortunately, working with them makes you rather immune to the rattling sound. Never a good thing when you are actually hearing a rattle from a snake not in a cage. 😉

  51. Rajini Rao says:

    What work do you do with them, Carissa Braun ? Would love to know.

  52. Basic animal care and outreach Rajini Rao. Of the venomous snakes, only two are rattlers: an eastern diamondback and a canebrake. 

    The canebrake is a large beauty. Gets one live rat a weeks and is one of the most passive snakes. As with all venomous, you have to do a two-part cage to shift them and put a divider for safety. That’s the only time the canebrake gets annoyed.

    The eastern diamondback once belonged to a vet who removed his venom glands, but he is still treated as a hot snake. He’s definitely older and has a very impressive rattler on him.  I do much more care with him and boy does he recognize me! With it comes the rattle so many times a day. It’s just background noise now 😉

  53. Rajini Rao says:

    Only two are rattlers : Carissa Braun  isn’t it amazing to hear about our collective experience here on G+? Yesterday, I wrote about a pliosaur fossil and it turned out that Tommy Leung has seen it at the Australian Museum where he interned. It’s like I’m vicariously living everyone’s experiences through G+ posts 🙂

  54. Chad Haney says:

    I also like how we ping each other as we learn each other’s background and specialty.

  55. Jim Carver says:

    Rajini Rao The plesiosaur research is from the University of Otago in New Zealand and has not been verified. As I stared stated somewhat yesterday, one specimen does not a theory make. This may prove out over the years but a head-over-heels approach is not what we consider good form in the Earth sciences. We let the GOP take care of that.

  56. Mary T says:

    My last encounter with a rattlesnake was on a trail ride some years back.  Snake poked his head out from a hole in the middle of the trail.  Yikes!  We skidded to a stop, and my friend’s horse decided that was the perfect moment to kick at my horse with both hind legs (we were behind him), nailing my shin.  We quickly turned around and kept riding.  When I got off two hours later, I discovered I had blood running down my leg under my boot, from a gash open to the bone.  Damn snake!  But a great ride, nonetheless :-).

  57. Chad Haney says:

    Ouch, sorry to hear that Mara Rose 

  58. Nothing wrong with vicariously living everyone’s experiences through G+ Rajini Rao 🙂

  59. Jim Carver says:

    Generally speaking, the striking distance of a viper is about 1/3 of its length. In my case of my BIG one that could have been close to six feet. That’s unusual. Most would fall into the one to two feet category. So in this case Mara Rose , the horse was more dangerous than the snake.

    Horses are nice and take a lot of care. I never used them, I always either walked, took an ATV or jumped in an old pickup truck.

    I’ve heard a lot of stories like this from ranchers where they got seriously injured from the horse, and the snake would have just run for cover.

  60. Rattlesnake roundups are causing an evolution of quiet rattlers, I’ve heard, since quiet ones don’t get caught. Around where I live, we have eastern diamondbacks, canebreak rattlers and/or? timber rattlers, and pygmy rattlesnakes (venom like the coral snake). Also, we have mocassins (cotton mouths), copperheads, and coral snakes. The nearby roundup in Claxton, the ‘Fruitcake Capital of the World,’ has changed its name from roundup to something innocuous like wildlife expo.

  61. Jim Carver says:

    Sally Larue That’s silly, everybody knows snakes are better when they are skinned and slow smoked over mesquite.

  62. Sally Larue says:

    I don’t really care… I ate a roasted rattler before and it taste good. TRY IT!

  63. Jim Carver says:

    It was a joke Sally. I don’t think I want to eat a snake unless it was a survival situation.

    I do make a killer marinade though. 😉

  64. Mary T says:

    Thanks Chad Haney~ At the time, it didn’t hurt that much, and I simply ignored it and had fun.  I love trail riding :-).  I was surprised by all the blood when I took my boot off!  Went to the ER later ~ and had it loosely stitched so it could drain.

    Yep, Jim Carver ~ Naughty horses, but I love ’em :-).

    To the barn with me, Good Evening!

  65. Chad Haney says:

    Good evening Mara Rose. That reminds me of when I busted up my knee on a trail on my mountain bike.

  66. Chad Haney says:

    Peter Lindelauf do you worry about Patchy and rattlers?

  67. Jim Carver says:

    Anybody know what happened to my joke about the Cretaceous  restaurant? Look, if you didn’t like it. At least let me copy it off and post it in my own stream.

  68. Interesting stat, how people though are killed by rattlers in the States per year?

  69. Are they found in all U.S. states? Or is it only states like Arizona for example?

  70. Thanks Justin Michels 🙂

  71. I said Arizona cos of the Diamondbacks lol

  72. Reptila Khan says:

    It is true you always remember the sound….I had a Timber Rattler years ago and every time you passed his enclosure it would set him off and sometimes he would keep it up after you were gone for good measure….lol

  73. I’m glad in England we only have one venomous snake hahaha

  74. Rajini Rao says:

    David Dhannoo , adders are found in England, right? It was Shakespeare who said, “It is the bright day that brings forth the adder and that craves wary walking”.

  75. Todd Hatcher says:

    Beautiful Creature in my part of the world that keeps down the vermon.

  76. Rajini Rao Spot on, the only venomous animal in the British Isles 🙂

  77. Be sure not to push their buttons! Heh very informative!…. did you know bare root keeps snakes away from your house?

  78. Rajini Rao says:

    Bare roots of any plant or something specific, Jason Johnson ?

  79. seth degyansky , where are you located? (because I refuse to Google “fruitcake capital…”). I ask because that is pretty much the variety that we have here (NC), although I’m not sure about the Coral snake.

  80. The root is called Osha root(Ligusticum Porteri) kinda strong but it works! Just mix with some boiling h2o and spray around the house! Just keep in mind if its gonna rain do it again after, it will wash away.

  81. C.A. Palma says:

    Coluber constrictor is really beautiful +Valerie Duncan. I will also give in to the admiration of snake+design+tails and indulge to mention Pseudocerastes urarachnoides as the coolest dinosaur-eats-dinosaur-by-impersonating-a-juicy-spider life form out there. http://www.solpugid.com/Fathinia%20et%20al.pdf. 🙂

  82. Dorsey White says:

    I was fishing for trout in PA. at mountain stream and had an eastern diamond rattler at my feet and didn’t know it between the stream and me, thank God I had my 22 magnum with me with shot shell I shot it and there was no way it was going to miss me when it was about to strike. It was as long as my leg, had 8 rattles and a button.

  83. Rajini Rao says:

    Poor rattler, but I’m glad you were not bitten Dorsey White .

  84. I can believe they can keep going and going Rajini Rao Case in point.. you posted this image three days ago and it hasn’t stopped shaking yet… 🙂 

    (I had several close encounters of the rattler kind in the early 80s when I lived in the high desert of CA)

  85. Very beautiful and dangerous . I love it .♥

  86. Chad Haney says:

    If anyone wants to see how a python jaw is split so that it can swallow large prey, here’s some pics.


  87. Nice pics Chad Haney , thanks. I am somewhat disappointed however, that nobody has made the obligitory Monty Python pun yet…. “SCARY!, but not as scary as Killer Rabbits!”. (sci.name: A. sillius killius lopsimorph, I believe…)

  88. Chad Haney says:

    Duane Mansfield that was implied quite cleverly.

  89. Oops Justin Michels , I believe that you might have intended to tag Peter Lindelauf in your above comment. (unless you are referencing the varieties of snakes in NC. If so, could you put that in laymen’s terms, please?) #not.A.herpentologist# 《splchck》

  90. Malthus John says:

    Rajini Rao – hmm,.. anecdotes?  One comment first, that while certainly not an accurate & precise measure of a snakes age, the size and number of buttons are a good rule of thumb for it.  Got a better one?  :p

    I’ve read that the sounds of rattlesnakes, and snake hissing in general is supposed to be ‘hard-wired’ into the human psyche and generates instant attention/fear response.  I’m not sure about the validity of that, but I can certainly agree that “once you hear a live rattler” and make that association, you will never forget it or fail to give 100% of your immediate attention to it!

  91. Rajini Rao says:

    Hi Malthus John , I would say that there is no fool proof way of estimating a snake’s age by its appearance. From what I’ve read, one can look at the length, thickness and hue (darker color associated with older snakes). I wonder if the population was polled for animals that evoke the most fear, if snakes would be among the top? There is something about their sinuous appearance that strikes fear into most people.

    One of my early childhood memories is of a favorite older cousin taking me to a Bollywood movie on about a snake who transformed into a woman killer. The movie was based on an Indian legend that if one kills a cobra, the surviving mate will pursue the killer in revenge. It took me years to recover from the movie and forgive my cousin 🙂 

  92. Malthus John says:

    Forgive me for making a joke,  Rajini Rao – but no wonder it took you years to forgive your cousin – riding that snake to the cinema must have been traumatic!

    #languagepolice   :-p

  93. Rajini Rao says:

    #confused  Malthus John !

    To what did the #languagepolice  object in the anecdote of a cousin taking me to a movie on a snake (stripped down version of the sentence)? EDIT: Haha, I get it now.

  94. Rajini Rao says:

    How does the edited sentence in my original comment read now? 😛

  95. Malthus John says:

    Less funny : (  

    At least you left the edit in place so others can get a laugh (and maybe improve on those little communication details).  “Stripping it down” worked perfectly!

    “If that preposition had been a snake…”

    Rajini Rao 

  96. Rajini Rao says:

    You had me rattled until I figured it out, Malthus John . I hate grammatical missstakes.

  97. Malthus John says:

    Oh no, puns make me recoil!  Can you scale it down a bit?

    Rajini Rao 

  98. Rajini Rao says:

    Did I make an asp out of myself Malthus John? Too bad that I can’t venom all.

  99. Malthus John says:

    I’m being repticious, no fangs to you!

    Rajini Rao 

  100. Syed Scorpio says:

    rattled by that  fact ……..

  101. Rajini Rao says:

    A fun pun, syed seo 🙂

  102. Hola que tal muy buen dia a todos

  103. Gage Eisley says:

    Some Rattlesnakes learned not to rattle their tail at humans.

  104. anu Anu says:

    seinzawzaw naingkokochit hai

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