Rattled Nerves?

The only thing more terrifying than knowing you are within striking distance of a rattlesnake, is not knowing you are within striking distance of a rattlesnake.

Anecdotally, rattlesnakes across the United States are becoming more and more reluctant to rattle, and I for one hope it’s true, because the purported reason is deliciously ironic with a healthy dollop of comeuppance thrown in for good measure. Even if it is not true, it provides a nice framework for introducing concepts of evolutionary theory to a wider audience, and brings attention to chronic acts of animal cruelty that still take place to this day. Thus for this essay, I shall accept the premise.

The story goes that rattlesnakes are falling silent because of a century-long, nationwide extermination effort that has effectively driven the remaining survivors into hiding. ‘Rattlesnake Roundups’ date back to 1939, and were originally devised as a benign educational fair at which the public could learn about these elusive and often misunderstood creatures. Since their conception, the main goal has always been to prevent snakebites and reduce incidents of human-wildlife conflict. In recent years however, roundups have transformed into a grotesque circus that culminates in the slaughter of literally hundreds of thousands* of animals each year, in a macabre display of Man’s domination of nature.

Justification for the killings often comes via an extremely exaggerated account of the risk that rattlesnakes pose to pets, livestock, and children. Alternative reasons must exist however, otherwise I would expect to see ‘mosquito roundups’ or ‘automobile roundups’ undertaken with similar (if not greater) enthusiasm. Sufficed to say, these do not exist, and hence I am led to conclude that the persecution of snakes simply stems from bad PR.

Something akin to religious fervor grips people when it comes to snakes. Indeed religion may be partly responsible for their bad image in the western world. In Judeo-Christian mythology, snakes are always the ‘bad guys’, and the Old Testament may have sealed the fate of snakes much the same way that Jaws did for sharks**. Public attitudes can be changed with concerted outreach efforts and targeted educational programs, but progress can be slow when you are fighting a tide of fear and misinformation.

Thankfully, the heyday of roundups is behind us, but despite many states banning the events, and global condemnation of the wanton killing, annual fairs still take place in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Georgia. Public support for such events is waning, but in many cases, the damage has already been done; rattlesnake populations have been decimated, and some species have required state and federal protection to try to curb declines.

Even if populations recover however, the iconic, spine-tingling buzz of the old west may be a thing of the past. While the rattle serves as an excellent deterrent for large grazers (historically Bison, nowadays cattle) with its ‘don’t tread on me’ message, it proves to be their undoing when it comes to people. To a trained rounder-upper, the rattle serves as a beacon, with the message roughly translated as: ‘here I am, come kill me’. It is argued therefore, that the US has been partaking in a massive artificial selection experiment. By preferentially killing the most conspicuous snakes, we have been unwittingly selecting for sneaky snakes that avoid detection, who in turn, survive to produce baby snakes that are equally adept at not getting caught.

The end result is rattlesnakes that don’t rattle, and a group of people achieving the exact opposite of what they initially set out to accomplish. It is much more likely you will step on a rattlesnake if it does not alert you to its presence. I told you the irony was delectable.

Unfortunately, we do not have data on the incidence of rattling from before the age of roundups, and thus it very difficult to discern whether any change has actually taken place. But as I alluded to at the beginning of this essay, whether it is true or not makes little difference to me. Far more important is that people understand how nature works. Even for the staunchest creationist, it is difficult to argue with the logical steps of the evolutionary argument. The direction of selection is so intuitive that even a child could understand the mechanisms involved, and indeed it floods the imagination with a childlike wonder as to what else is being driven down some serendipitous evolutionary trajectory as a result of human folly.

Some dispute the anecdotes, and claim rattlesnakes rattle as much as they always have. For my rebuttal, I shall return to the Bible, that highlights how lessons can be learned from stories even if they are not true. If the notion of silent snakes spurs people to condemn animal cruelty and/or think about the natural world more deeply, I think I would be happy to perpetuate the myth.


* exact numbers unknown due to reluctance amongst event organizers to provide figures.

**and they say kids don’t read anymore!