(HOST) Commentator Ruth Page invites us to respect and admire rattlesnakes and to appreciate their important niche in America’s ecology.
(PAGE) When someone discusses cold-blooded animals, our first reaction isn’t likely to be thoughts of motherhood, friendship and coziness. Not even ones we admire, like frogs and turtles, trigger such a reaction, to say nothing of snakes. We grudgingly admit that at least they eat rodents, and that’s a plus.
Some people have an instant fear or disgust reaction to snakes, which always surprises those of us who think them beautiful. Yet even folks who shudder at snake stories are likely to admire a delicate shed snakeskin that they may spot on their walks, and study its patterns.
Timber rattlesnakes were familiar to those of us who visited the Pennsylvania countryside years ago. I learned not to panic if we spotted one. The only time I ever saw any, I was peering through the grimy windows of a hunter’s cabin in the hills, and there were snakes gathered in a knot on the floor for warmth.
Right. Gathered in a knot. They were probably pregnant females waiting for spring so they could fertilize their eggs. They’d been fattening up for months to produce healthy offspring. Field research has shown that pregnant females like to be together, often with their relatives, when they give birth.
It’s a fairly rare accomplishment: it takes about ten years for a young snake to attain maturity. After mating they carry the eggs for a year, eating lots to promote healthy offspring. They don’t eat following the births until the young have been protected for a week or more; predators like to lunch on the babies. This is such an endurance test for the skinny, hungry moms, they can only manage the ordeal every three to six years.
The best way to protect the newborns and keep them warm is in the friendly knots of the shared birthing chamber. When the babies are able to go out and absorb some of the sun’s warmth, moms still protect them until they head off on their own. Rattler babies are armed with venom from birth.
It isn’t just reduced habitat that is endangering snakes in the United States. It’s the cultivated fear of anything venomous, and possibly even the Bible story of Adam and Eve that casts the snake as the villain.
Timber rattlers are their habitat’s top predators. When top predators are lost to their ecological niche, the other plants and animals there suffer. That’s why returning the wolves to Yellowstone has helped that park. Wolves improved tree growth by controlling the numbers of tree-wrecking elk, and that allowed the return of beaver and many smaller creatures, including trout, thus restoring the ecosystem.
It’s one thing to kill a timber rattler when you’re in actual danger from it; but it’s a loss to Nature when hunters search them out in their lairs and kill large numbers in Snake Roundups.
This is Ruth Page in Shelburne.