After passing me a beer from the fridge, Kimberly led me to the snakes, which were contained in forty-gallon Rubbermaid bins in her living room. I sat down while she shifted the bins to clear a place on her floor where she and her colleague Jayme could work. As soon as she moved the bin, a warning rattled from within it. That sound could strike fear through any heart, and to calm mine, I took a long swig of my beer. Despite this initial reaction, which I have no doubt evolved to experience, when Kimberly—Dr. Kimberly Andrews, who works for the University of Georgia at the Savannah River Ecology Lab and is dear friend of mine—called to tell me she had caught a mother eastern diamondback rattlesnake and seven babies and asked me if I wanted to come see them, I was at her door less than an hour later.
She and Jayme Waldron, a biologist from the University of South Carolina, transported the snakes from Kimberly’s Palmetto Bluff field site in southeastern South Carolina to her home inside the bins; mom in one, babies in the other. As part of a study she’s been working on since 2007, Kimberly is tracking twelve other eastern diamondback rattlesnakes on Palmetto Bluff, a piece of forested maritime property that is being developed into an upscale golfing and resort neighborhood for millionaires. Using a long metal hook, Kimberly lifted a tiny rattlesnake out of the bin and carefully placed it inside her venomous snake squeeze box. The box was constructed from wooden boards, each side three feet long and about a foot high, like a small empty sandbox. Once placed, the tiny snake slid along the wall of the box and considered the side with a few tongue flicks. The diamond pattern along the serpent’s back and the broad heart-shaped head were perfect miniatures of what this snake had the biological potential to become: the largest rattlesnake in the world.
Next Kimberly lowered a square piece of clear plexiglass with a tall handle affixed to the center inside the wooden box. The plexiglass fit tightly into place inside the box, gently smashing the snake’s long body and pinning the animal in place. Then she used a green dry-erase marker to trace the snake from tip to tip onto the plexiglass. Underneath the clear cover, the snake flexed a muscle near its head and sent a ripple of contractions down the length of its body like a slinky, trying unsuccessfully to move. Having traced the length, Kimberly moved her long blond ponytail to her opposite shoulder, lifted the plexiglass, and passed it to Jayme. Freed from the squeeze, the snake’s body regained its tube shape, and the little guy coiled up and wagged its tail in the species’ signature warning move. Only his tail, consisting of a single round button, was too little to make any noise.
“Oh, I’m so scared,” Jayme said in a high-pitched voice usually reserved for dogs and children. She followed the green marker line on the plexiglass with a flexible measuring tape to determine the length of the snake was eight and a half inches long. These were brand-new babies. So cute, the two women agreed.
Few people would address this particular snake species with such tenderness, considering the Eastern Diamondback’s reputation as a big, bad viper. When striking, through needle-like fangs, they release powerful hemotoxin venom that kills the snakes’ prey before they swallow it whole; people, too large to eat, are bitten only in defense. Far more people die each year from dog bites, but a diamondback rattlesnake bite can be fatal, which is why people perceive this snake as such a threat.
However, Eastern diamondbacks aren’t aggressive; they only bite when they don’t have any other choice and they prefer to avoid people altogether. Kimberly has told me that when people discover rattlesnakes on their property, the snakes often leave and never return because they recognize our presence is not safe for them, almost as if they’ve been busted doing something they’re not supposed to do. Despite their seeming respect for people, rattlesnakes have long been one of those animals that humans indiscriminately kill. Homeowners chop them in half with shovels. Construction crews run them over on site. And the snakes’ large size—males can grow to be six feet long and twelve pounds heavy—has made them a prime target for rattlesnake roundups, where snakes are hunted and killed for sport. This, scientists fear, is why the Eastern Diamondback seems to be less and less common: humans have killed them all.
Despite the evolutionary fear I felt when I heard the mom’s rattle from within the bin and the deadly potential I knew the snakes possessed, I had to admit, these little guys were cute. Kimberly and Jayme were excited to collect the serpent family, a rare find even for people who intentionally search out the vipers. Rattlesnake eggs develop and hatch inside the mother’s body and so she gives birth to live young. Once they’re born, rattlesnakes may only stay with their mother for a few hours before venturing out on their own. Of course the scientists had to catch the snakes and keep them long enough to collect data, and when they started hooking them, Kimberly said, the little ones curled up on their mother’s head for protection.
Humans may have to start protecting the Eastern diamondback too. For a long time, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and other groups have been pressuring one of the largest rattlesnake roundups, which has been held for forty-five years in Claxton, Georgia, to stop slaughtering the snakes. This past spring, the Claxton Rattlesnake Roundup was transformed into a wildlife festival where snakes were celebrated instead of hunted and killed. And earlier this year a group of scientists and environmental groups petitioned to have the Eastern Diamondback listed on the federal endangered species list. This petition only starts the process of protecting this species with the highest and most powerful environmental law. But doing so would not only protect a beautiful animal that plays a critical ecological role in southeastern America’s coastal forests, it would protect the forests themselves and force people to see the rattlesnake as something that deserves more than our complete disdain.
To get all the data they wanted, Kimberly had to handle the snake, and to safely do so, she needed to get the business end into a clear plastic tube that would hold the animal still and prevent it from striking. Baby rattlesnakes are known for being deadlier than adults, though not because the venom is stronger. They can’t control the amount of venom they release when they bite. An adult might be more conservative and reserve its venom for when it’s feeding and dry bite when striking in defense, while a neophyte might release it all whether it needs to or not. Kimberly put the tube in the snake’s face and tried to encourage it to enter the clear tunnel by touching its tail end with another tube.
“Come on,” she coaxed. It investigated the tube, but over and over again, the snake averted her attempts. Watching her handle the snake, so new and unaware of what its life would entail, I thought about what might happen to it after she returned it to its home the following day. Aside from the challenge of finding enough food to survive, this snake would face construction equipment—Palmetto Bluff is a developing neighborhood—and later, after the streets are paved and the houses built, it would face homeowners who can’t help but hate snakes. And it became so obvious in the presence of this creature, which I could only describe as curious and gentle, that the same level of care in handling that the scientists used could so easily translate to care in living for the rest of us humans. As vulnerable as people feel in a rattlesnake’s presence, it seems that if they can learn to avoid us, we should be able to respect and avoid the rattlesnakes, which are far more vulnerable in the human world.
After a few minutes and plenty of encouragement, the snake finally ventured far enough into the tube, about half its body length, that Kimberly could pick it up. Gripping the snake where its back end emerged from the plastic, Kimberly inserted a thin metal probe into the snake’s cloaca to determine the sex—it was a boy, she knew, because of the presence of two roundish organs called hemipenes. Then she measured the length of the tail rattle with the measuring tape, used a medical cauterizing tool to brand the snake as number one, and dropped him into a white fabric bag. She hooked the bag, made of a thin parachute material, to a scale and weighed the snake. At forty grams, he weighed only as much as the empty bag. Then she placed him back in the bin with the others and hooked her next victim. She repeated the process until she’d measured and prodded all seven little snakes; they were done before my beer. When she’d returned the last snake to the bin, she snapped the lid closed and said in a motherly tone, “Now don’t escape and kill us in the night.”