Biologist: Vermont's rattlesnakes aren't out to get you
BENNINGTON -- A drawing of a snake coiled around a tree branch just above a youth's head is shown to a group of about 30 people at the One World Conservation Center. In the next panel, the snake has gone straight for the young man's jugular.
Doug Blodgett, a biologist for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, speaking to the group gathered at the center Thursday evening, said the drawing could not be further from the truth but serves as a prime example of how snakes have been portrayed in media going back as far as the Bible.
Blodgett's lecture was about the state's tiny rattlesnake population, which consists of two dens in Rutland County, near Lake Champlain. A few hundred snakes live between them, spend about half the year underground, and do not venture much farther than three miles from their homes.
Vermont once had from 12 to 18 dens, but as humans built roads and houses, those populations vanished. It was not a simple case of habitat destruction, however. Blodgett showed the group a photo taken in the early 1900s of one of the northeast's many annual snake hunts where groups of people would gather and scour the woods, clubbing, stabbing, and shooting any rattlesnake they could find. "They did a pretty darn good job," Blodgett said, estimating the state's current snake population to be 15 percent of what it once was.
The state is not ideal rattlesnake country, and their presence here is a testament to their durability, Blodgett said. He and other state biologists recently completed a two-year study of the animals where dozens were captured and implanted with radios and tracking chips. Blodgett said the study revealed many things about the snakes, including the presence of a deadly fungal infection.
Blodgett said the fungus worries him because so little is known about it. It has been found in snake populations in other states, and appears fatal in many cases. He said it reminds him of the White-Nose Syndrome that has all but annihilated bat populations from Canada to Missouri. Blodgett said the fungus may be something the snakes have always had to deal with, but more research needs to be done.
Most Vermonters will never come across a native rattlesnake given their small numbers and location, and even if they did they would likely walk right past the snake. Blodgett said he has done this many times, and on two occasions had stepped on the animals. Rather than bite, they slithered off, he said.
A rattlesnake's first line of defense is to not be seen. Their coloration, black or yellow, makes them hard to spot on the forest floor. Their second defense is, of course, their namesake rattle, which gets larger each time the snake sheds its skin -- roughly once a year. Blodgett said the rattle is made from the same substance as human fingernails and is quite brittle, so attempting to predict the age of a snake based on the size of its tail does not work well.
Besides its rattle, a rattlesnake can be identified by its triangular-shaped head. Other, non-venomous snakes, have heads that blend into their necks because they do not possess venom sacs. Rattlesnakes are also a "meaty" snake, with thick bodies. Blodgett said he gets many calls a year from people who have been fooled by a milk snake, which have learned to mimic the rattlesnake's tail shaking to protect themselves.
Blodgett said rattlesnakes are strictly ambush predators. They lie in wait for days, using their heads and many ribs to sense vibrations in the ground telling them a chipmunk or a squirrel is wandering nearby. He said an untrained person should never attempt to capture or handle a rattlesnake, as they can bite and Vermont does not stock anti-venom. However, if one is calm and keeps a distance, he or she can easily view a true "gem of the forest" without trouble.
Some creatures do prey on rattlesnakes, and when they do they attack quickly. The snakes respond to fast, violent actions, which Blodgett said he is careful not to make when capturing them.
Rattlesnakes give birth to live young and are attentive mothers, compared to other snakes. They produce litters perhaps every four or five years, having about half about seven or eight babies at a time. Half of the offspring do not survive their first few weeks of life. Blodgett said the young snakes follow their mothers' trails back to the dens, where they go to and from for the rest of their lives. It's believed the snakes in Vermont's remaining dens have been going there for thousands of years.
Blodgett said attempts to raise rattlesnakes in captivity and introduce them to dens have not gone well. He noted that rattlesnakes are nearing extinction in New Hampshire.
The event was free, but donations were encouraged. Mary Fuqua, president of the One World Conservation Center, said the organization does events such as this regularly and is open to groups of visitors.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.
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