Southern B.C.’s rattling reptile

The Northern Pacific rattlesnake.  Photo: Peter Sulzle
The Northern Pacific rattlesnake.
Photo: Peter Sulzle

The Northern Pacific rattlesnake’s an intriguing sight. The reptile’s easily identified by its distinct features of a triangular and broad head, a unique neck and an impressive rattle at the end of its tail.

These snakes are the only truly venomous snakes in B.C. and are only found in the Thompson Okanagan. They can be spotted living in rocky terrain and talus areas in forest or grassland habitats.

Rattlesnakes have always been the focus of reptile lovers and this species, with their eminently large eyes and vertical pupils, inspire a bizarre appeal. These snakes have long, dark patches on their cheeks, and deep pits between their nostrils that lend them an almost evil yet overpowering charisma that many find hard to resist.

As far as size goes, this species varies greatly. Some are stunted at 60 centimetres, while others can grow up to 150 cm. They’re usually found in dark hues such as tan, gray, brown and olive, and their skin is overlaid by dark blotches that run along their back and sides. As the blotches continue towards the tail, they look more like bands encircling the reptile’s body.

When it comes to behaviour, Northern Pacific rattlesnakes are unpredictable creatures. From quiet and inoffensive to easily provoked and aggressive, they have a vastly varying temperament. The snakes’ first line of defence is usually to hide when approached, before giving a warning rattle if it feels threatened. Striking is usually their last choice. Rattlesnake bites are uncommon, but can be fatal.

With the arrival of late summers, the males start seeking females for mating. Rattlesnakes don’t lay eggs, they’re live-bearing, and give birth to between two and eight young from mid-September to October. While pregnant, the females don’t eat anything at all, and as they can return to hibernation soon after birthing, they can go without eating for more than a year.

Northern Pacific rattlesnakes hibernate in traditional dens located underground. These dens are known as “hibernacula” and are shared by other snakes belonging to an assortment of species. Rattlesnakes have designated dens and they return to them each year. Because the mothers and young return to the hibernacula soon after birth, the young usually don’t eat before hibernation and are vulnerable to predation.

Baby rattlesnakes are as poisonous as adults. However, they lack the characteristic rattle. Instead of seeking food, these young wait for the prey to come to them. They locate prey using the heat pits on their face to detect heat from the prey’s body. Once they find one, rattlesnakes strike the prey quickly, injecting venom using their long fangs. Since their fangs are such essential tools to their hunt, these reptiles make replacement fangs that are often obscured behind the existing ones to counter breakage.

Northern Pacific rattlesnakes are a fascinating site in this region. If you hear one rattle, it’s best to stop and get a visual on the snake before moving away from it, giving it ample space.

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