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What Is the Purpose of a Rattlesnake Rattler?

Sandi Johnson
Sandi Johnson

Rattlesnakes, also known as pit vipers, vibrate the end of their tail to produce the tell-tale sound for which the snake is best known and for which the species is named. Experts believe the primary purpose of a rattlesnake rattler is to warn potential predators of the snake's presence, since rattlesnakes do not typically strike unless provoked. Other experienced researchers, snake handlers, and wildlife experts suggest the buzzing sound produced by a rattlesnake rattler has the additional purpose of mimicking insect sounds that attract prey animals. Although it does not serve a purpose to the snake, a rattlesnake rattler can also be used to determine an individual snakes' approximate age.

Contrary to popular belief, rattlesnakes seldom attack anything other than prey it intends to eat, unless provoked into mounting a defense. When approached, a rattlesnake will typically coil up in an effort to protect itself. By vibrating its tail and creating the rattling noise, the snake hopes to warn unsuspecting people or other predators of the intention to mount a venomous defense, if necessary. The rattlesnake rattler produces a distinct buzzing sound which most potential defense victims immediately recognize and associate with imminent danger. Natural response to a rattlesnake rattler sound, no matter the potential victims' species, is to avoid the poisonous snake at all costs, thus relieving the snake of the need to strike out in defense.

A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.
A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.

Alternatively, some researchers suggest that the buzzing sound associated with a rattlesnake rattler serves to attract select types of prey, helping the snake to lure prey rather than having to hunt for food. Certain species of rattlesnakes produce a sound that is reportedly similar to cicadas and other insects. Birds, lizards, and other animals hear the vibrating sound and follow it, expected to find food. Instead, prey stumbles into an ingeniously laid trap, with a rattlesnake patiently lying in wait for the prey to get within striking distance.

The Western Diamondback rattlesnake is considered to be one of the most dangerous snakes in North America.
The Western Diamondback rattlesnake is considered to be one of the most dangerous snakes in North America.

For researchers and those who study wildlife, the final purpose of a rattlesnake rattler is to determine the approximate age of an individual snake by counting the number of segments included in a rattle. A rattlesnake rattler begins as nothing more than a button on a baby rattlesnake, making almost no sound when vibrated. As the snake ages, additional rattles are added, giving the snake the ability to make a buzzing sound. Each time a rattlesnake sheds its skin, which can be two or more times per year, a new rattle segment grows. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a pit viper to loose portions of a rattle due to injury, so age estimates using rattler segments are far from conclusive.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the primary function of a rattlesnake's rattler?

The primary function of a rattlesnake's rattler is to serve as a warning device. When threatened, the rattlesnake vibrates its tail, causing the segments of the rattle to collide and produce a distinctive buzzing sound. This sound warns potential predators or threats to stay away, thereby reducing the likelihood of a confrontation.

How does a rattlesnake's rattle produce sound?

A rattlesnake's rattle is made up of a series of interlocked keratin segments. When the snake shakes its tail, these segments rapidly collide against each other, creating a buzzing or rattling sound. The muscles in the tail can contract up to 50 times per second, allowing the snake to sustain the rattle for a prolonged period.

Do all rattlesnakes have a rattle from birth?

No, rattlesnakes are not born with a fully formed rattle. They are born with a single "pre-button" at the end of their tails. With each shedding of their skin, a new segment is added to the rattle. Over time, as the snake matures and sheds its skin multiple times, the characteristic rattle develops.

Can a rattlesnake's rattle indicate its age?

Contrary to popular belief, a rattlesnake's rattle is not an accurate indicator of its age. While a new segment is added to the rattle each time the snake sheds its skin, the frequency of shedding can vary based on factors like growth rate, health, and environmental conditions. Additionally, segments can break off, making age estimation unreliable.

Is the rattlesnake's rattle used for anything besides warning predators?

Beyond serving as a warning signal to predators, the rattlesnake's rattle may have additional uses, though these are less understood. Some hypotheses suggest it could be used for communication between rattlesnakes or to attract mates, but these theories require further scientific investigation to be substantiated.

What happens if a rattlesnake's rattle is damaged or lost?

If a rattlesnake's rattle is damaged or lost, it can continue to live a normal life, but with a reduced ability to warn predators effectively. The rattle may partially regenerate over time with subsequent sheddings, but it may not regain its original form or sound. Despite this, rattlesnakes can still rely on their camouflage and venomous bite for defense.

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    • A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.
      By: fivespots
      A Northern Pacific rattlesnake.
    • The Western Diamondback rattlesnake is considered to be one of the most dangerous snakes in North America.
      The Western Diamondback rattlesnake is considered to be one of the most dangerous snakes in North America.