(Rattlesnake:  Fr-serpent à sonnettesGer-Klapperschlange;
Nor-klapperslange; Rus- гремучая  змея-?)

A. Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis  (Rafinesque, 1818)) rattles and part of its skin (length of rattles ~7 cm) from Montana prairie. (© photo courtesy Chichester Inc., from www.chichesterinc.com)

DESCRIPTION:  Phylum, Chordata; subphylum, Vertebrata; class, Reptila; order, Squamata; suborder, Serpentes; family, Viperidae:  "Rattlesnake rattles are derived entirely from epidermal tissue, just as any other skin cell on their body.  They are [, however,] composed of a higher concentration of keratin [my underline] so they can resist friction against one another during rattling behaviors ..." (personal communication, Dr. Steve Huskey [Western Kentucky University], email,16  Dec. 2005).
    Colors - yellowish, tan to dark brown, medium gray to almost black - varies with species and for some individual species with their environment.

    H.  ~2½ <<  an example of plate-like keratin-rich material.
    S.G.    ~1.29 <<  an example of plate-like keratin-rich material.
    Light transmission - tanslucent to nearly opaque
    Luster - dull, horn-like to waxy
    Breakage - somewhat brittle
    Miscellaneous - Complete "rattles" have roughly rounded terminal ends -- i.e., the original "button" remains;  incomplete "rattles" have roughly tiered ends because one or more segments have been broken off (see Figure B).    

OTHER NAMES:  Although different rattlesnakes have different scientific names and several have been given vernacular designations (e.g., timber and diamondback rattlers), nearly all "rattles" marketed as jewelry or curios are merely called rattlesnake rattles.

USES:  "Rattles" from snakes are used as parts of necklaces, earrings, bracelets and brooches/pins;   fobs for watches and key rings;  pulls for light cords;  etc.  One of the more interesting uses of rattlesnake rattles is by some country fiddle-players -- especially those of the southern Appalachians -- who put rattles in their fiddles:  This custom has been characterized diversely as symbolizing machoism -- "way back, the fiddle used to be a woman's instrument and putting the rattles inside 'masculinizes' it for men folk to play";   making the fiddle sound better -- "the rattles inside "sang along" with the music giving it a better & sweeter sound";  [and/or]  for upkeep -- "supposedly, their odor would keep rats and mice from nesting in or molesting precious instruments." (all quotations from Ford, 1998-2005).  A professional musician who read this entry observed: "I would have to think that the most common of these reasons would be just for the buzzing sound the rattles would create."  Whatever the reason(s), it seems that the custom has spread so now rattlesnake rattles are also stashed in guitars.

Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox Baird & Girard, 1853 - "western diamondback") rattles (lengths  ~5 cm), from desert area of the south-western United States.  These rattles have "been legally obtained ... according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service."    The shapes of the ends of these rattles indicate that the snakes from which they came lost at least the original button ends and perhaps one or more rattles.  (© photo courtesy The Evolution store, from www.TheEvolutionStore.com)

OCCURRENCES & NOTEWORTHY LOCALITIES:  Rattlesnakes are Western Hemisphere venomous snakes. For general distribution information Behler and King (1979) is a good referenceSeveral publications outline the occurrence of specific rattlesnakes within given areas (e.g., states).

Considering the fact that rattlesnakes are native only to the Western Hemisphere, the origin of the name in English dates back only to the 17th century.   Nevertheless, the roots of the two words snake and rattle may be relevant:  Snake is said to have the following roots "O.E.[Old English] from P.Gmc.[Proto-Germanic] snaca,*snakon (cf. O.N [Old Norse]. snakr 'snake,' Swed[ish]. snok, Ger[man]. Schnake 'ring snake'), from PIE [Proto-Indo-European] base snag-, sneg- 'to crawl, creeping thing' (cf. O.Ir.[Old Irish] snaighim 'to creep,' Lith[uanian].  snake 'snail,' O.H.G.[Old High German] snahhan 'to creep').   Rattle may date from "c[irca].1330, perhaps in O.E.[Old English], but not recorded; if not, from M.Du.[Middle Dutch] ratelen, probably of imitative origin (cf. Ger[man]. rasseln "to rattle," G[ree]k. kradao "I rattle").(Harper, 2002).

Rattlesnakes, which belong to the Crotalus and Sistrurus genera, have loosely attached, keratinous tail segments that produce a "rattling" sound when vibrated.  A rattle segment is added each time the snake sheds its skin.  Rattles are not shed, so the number of rattle segments is indicative of the age of the snake  -- i.e., the older the snake, the more segments.  But, the number of rattles should not be used to indicate the snake's age in years;  snakes frequently shed their skin more than once a year, and rattlers have been known to lose posterior segments.  Also, snakes often lose one or more segments of their rattles -- the appearance of the rattles in Figure B is typical of those lacking the first (i.e., oldest) segment, which is rounded and called a button, and perhaps also one or more other early formed segments.

"The Rattlesnake"  -- Having spent my youth in St. Lawrence County, New York, where Frederic Remington was born and spent his youth, it would have been blasphemous for me not to mention this famous sculpture.  Incidentally, the Frederic Remington Art Museum is in Ogdensburg, New York just 22 miles from the home of my youth.

The noise rattlesnakes make -- to me more a buzzing than a rattling  -- is not, as some think, from little bones lodged in their tails;  nothing is in there!  Instead, the "rattling" sound occurs when the snake makes its tail vibrate and the segments of its tail brush against each other Some scientists believe that at least some species of rattlers may "rattle" to lure birds and other prey.  Indeed, some of the "rattle" sounds do resemble the sounds of insects, so perhaps nearby birds do go to the noise with the hope of finding food (not a hungry snake!).  Two additional observations recorded about this "rattling" are interesting (if true):  "The noise they make ... is loudest in fair weather; in rainy weather they make no noise at all.  [And,]  It is remarkable, that whenever a single snake rattles, all that are within hearing ‘rattle in like manner." (Wesley..., 1993-2005).

"Don't tread on me." 

SIMULANTS:   Casts consisting of plastics, resins etc. that have been made by using molds made of natural rattles may or may not be considered to be simulants -- i.e., they may be considered replicas. Whichever, these imitations can be distinguished from natural rattlesnake rattles by macroscopic examination.

REPLICAS:  Castings of  gold, silver, diverse alloys, ceramics (including terra cotta), glass, as well as the above mentioned plastic and resin "rattles" are widely marketed.  Also, note the following advertisement:  "Carved stone rattlesnake rattles - We have a few carved stone rattlesnake rattles for sale ... They are available in Aragonite, Jasper and Hematite. They can be used many different ways and have a 2mm hole drilled through the top, perfect for hanging on a necklace, made into key chains or any other idea you may come up with. Each rattle measures approximately 2 inches in length." (Bliss, 2005Another rock -- pipestone -- has been carved to replicate rattlesnakes, and the one I saw had some eye-catching entching around small, round turquoise on its back.  In addition, replicas of several sizes have been fashioned to resemble complete or certain parts of rattlesnakes -- e.g., "metallic rattlesnake-motif belt buckles" (Rubio, 1998, p.185), fetishes carved from diverse gemstones, and carvings ranging from those that are ornately bejeweled to the one shown in Figure  B.

B. Rattlesnake cane.  Carved top of cane (length shown - 60 cm) with rattlesnake, including the rattles, motif.  (photo by Dick Dietrich)

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Last update:
8 September 2007
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