Happy Birthday! Here's a Rattlesnake

Written By Whit Gibbons; Originally published in the Tuscaloosa News (December 10, 1995)

Happy Birthday, here's your rattlesnake. Actually here are your 28 rattlesnakes, plus a handful of other kinds of snakes for good luck. Sound like a good time or what? Well, that's what we gave our son, Mike, for his 23rd birthday. An ecology field trip. The present was really my idea, and I got to deliver it. His mother actually had in mind the kind of gifts you wrap up in paper and ribbon.

The presentation day was a Sunday in October at a National Wildlife Refuge, not an exotic pet store, near Orlando, Florida. Terry Farrell and Peter May of Stetson University let us go with them to their pygmy rattlesnake study site. These two ecologists have one of the most impressive snake studies in the country. They have collected more pigmy rattlesnakes than any other two people anywhere. Upon being invited to join them on a sampling day I had asked if Mike could come along. Now, Mike grew up like most other boys, enjoying the outdoors and always wanting to catch something. And so, because I did a lot of field work, he often went with me. For one of this birthdays we visited Laura Brandt in the Everglades during her study of American crocodiles. On another we went to a tropical forest in Veracruz, Mexico, where he caught his first boa constrictor. He also had birthdays in Arizona collecting snakes, and others in Michigan and on the Potomac River capturing turtles. On some birthdays we just went to the local woods, river or swamp to see what we could find.

For the pygmy rattlesnake hunt we met the others at a gravel parking lot alongside a swamp. As we drove up, one of the female students was taking measurements on a pygmy rattlesnake that had been crawling across the parking lot as she got out of the car. I wondered what it would be like when we got to the study site.

We walked down a dike separating two lakes toward a hammock where most of the snakes are found. A hammock is a wooded area surrounded by open wetlands and with palmettos, cypress, and bay magnolia trees. A variety of wildlife find refuge in hammocks.

As we walked along, Terry found a baby pygmy rattler coiled on the dike. Mike found another, coiled in the grass a few feet away. I relaxed. At least Mike had found a snake. He would not be disappointed. The pygmy rattlers are so well camouflaged that many people do not find one on their first trip. On a previous trip with Peter and Terry, I watched Tony Mills stare at the ground while someone pointed to a pygmy rattlesnake that neither of us could see at first. It blended perfectly with the ground cover of dead twigs and pine cones.

These smallest of venomous snakes in North America are shy and retiring when it comes to humans. They prefer not to be seen or heard. They do have a tiny set of rattles that sound like an insect buzzing if they get mad and you get close enough. And their venom is potent, drop for drop. But because of their small size (seldom over 18 inches) they are not as dangerous as cottonmouths or diamondback rattlers.

Mike was in tune with his environment that day and spotted an adult pygmy rattler on the dike. I began to wonder how many I had stepped on. Then came the really fun part, entering the hammock where most of the snakes lived. A walking trail leads through the hammock but central Florida had recently been favored with tremendous rains. The trail was a foot deep in water, which was over two feet deep in the woods themselves.

Some snakes seek refuge on higher ground or vegetation during floods. And the little rattlers were on exposed areas of dry ground as well as on palmetto fronds and in low-lying bushes. Mike found one more than six feet above the water in a wax myrtle tree. This gave me a new regard for pushing vegetation aside while charging through the woods off the trail.

We stayed approximately three hours and found 28 pygmy rattlesnakes. I say "we" found them because I was there. Mike found five, Peter found six, Terry found seven, the students found the rest, and I found none. But I did catch a green snake no one else saw. We also found two garter snakes, four ribbon snakes, a water snake and four box turtles.

Ecology field trips make for fun and memorable birthday presents. You can do the same for someone in your family, although you may prefer not to look for rattlesnakes.

Who is Whit Gibbons?

Whit Gibbons is an eminent herpetologist and a professor at the University of Georgia. He works at the Savannah River Ecology Lab, where he and a large group of colleagues have completed many pioneering projects on reptiles and amphibians. Anyone with an interest in herpetology will thoroughly enjoy reading his book "Their Blood Runs Cold" (By Whit Gibbons, 1983, The University of Alabama Press, ISBN 0-8173-0133-X).