The Great Basin Rattlesnake is light brown or gray with a tapering row of brownish blotches down the midline of the back. Scales are large and keeled (not flat and smooth) in 25-27 rows. Their range is from southeast Oregon, southern Idaho, and northeast California, to Nevada, western Utah, and northwest Arizona. It is a subspecies of the Western Rattlesnake.
The Great Basin Gopher Snake, Pituophis melanoleucus, is sometimes mistaken for a rattlesnake, too often motivating irrational fear or unnecessary violence from humans. The two species do have somewhat similar markings but careful observation quickly reveals several obvious differences. The body of a Great Basin rattlesnake is thicker with flat sloping sides, whereas the gopher snake’s body is perfectly round, long, and skinny. Rattlesnakes are also identified by their large triangular heads; gopher snakes’ heads are small and bullet-shaped. Most notably, gopher snakes lack the rattle at the end of their tails. Interestingly, they have learned to mimic rattlesnakes by twitching their tails when alarmed. If their tail happens to be resting on some dry leaves, the noise of their tail-twitching can mimic the “buzz”of a rattlesnake’s rattle. While this behavior fools a Coyote or fox into leaving the gopher snake alone, it often encourages misguided or malevolent humans to kill it.
Rattlesnakes are often referred to as poisonous snakes. This description is incorrect as the meat from a Great Basin rattlesnake is not only edible, it is also considered very tasty, having a flavor similar to (yep, you guessed it!) chicken. Rattlesnakes are venomous. The difference is in the definitions of the two words. Poisonous means unsafe to eat. Venomous means having the potential to inject poison into you. It’s an important distinction as humans do far more “biting” of rattlesnakes than they do of us.Rattlesnakes hibernate through the winter in communal burrows. For the Great Basin Rattlesnakes, mating occurs between March and May and sometimes in the fall. Young are live-born, usually between August and October in litter sizes of 4 – 21 young. The record lifespan of a Great Basin Rattlesnake is 19 ½ years.
Rattlesnakes are “sit and wait” predators. Instead of hunting, they prefer to hide and let prey come to them. Rattlesnakes sense their surrounding world in several ways. With forward facing eyes, their vision is more binocular than that of most snakes. This gives them excellent aim and the ability to precisely judge distances when striking. They also can “smell” by collecting molecules on their forked tongues, then transferring them to a special receptor on the roof of their mouth called the Jacobson’s Organ. (A snake’s nostrils serve no olfactory function whatsoever; they are used only for respiration.)
Rattlesnakes are also able to sense vibrations through the ground created by the movement of other animals. Even a small mouse tip-toeing through soft sand does not go undetected by a rattlesnake. The rattlesnake’s most unusual method of detection is its’ “infrared night vision.” Special organs called Loreal Pits on the snake’s face allow it to detect the slightest change in temperature. This allows it to locate and precisely strike the warm body of a living mouse that mistakenly thought it was concealed by total darkness. After delivering the venomous bite, the snake swallows the rodent victim whole.
Rattlesnakes respond to danger in predictable ways. First the snake will try to move out of the way of whatever threat is approaching. If it can’t escape, it will try to scare the potential predator away by shaking its tail, creating the diagnostic buzzing sound or rattle. If this does not work, the snake will then coil and prepare to strike. Some slow motion videos show the whole snake leaping off the ground, but their effective striking distance is usually less than half their overall body length. When the snake lunges, it opens its jaws wide, pulling the normally retracted fangs forward. After biting, the lower jaw quickly closes, smoothly prying the fangs out of the wound so as not to break them. Broken fangs will re-grow.