Reptiles and mammals have a lot of differences, including how often we need to eat. You may have heard conflicting stories that snakes only need to eat once a week or once a month, but is that really true? How often does a rattlesnake eat?
Here’s what I’ve seen:
Rattlesnakes only ever eat when they are hungry, which is about every 2-3 weeks. Snakes swallow their prey whole and need 3-5 days to fully digest it. They also don’t expend a lot of energy each day, so they can have long breaks between feeding sessions.
As nocturnal creatures, rattlesnakes typically feed during the nighttime.
They have great heat vision which makes hunting at night effective; the snake can see its prey, but the prey cannot see the snake. Rattlesnakes take their hunting seriously, and for all you rattlesnake enthusiasts out there, here are a few more good things to know about their feeding habits!
When do Rattlesnakes Eat?
Rattlesnakes will often hunt at night under the cover of darkness. Because they can sense their prey’s heat signature, they don’t need light to hunt. Usually, they will become active around dusk and go out looking for prey.
Snakes use their tongues to pick up scent particles from the ground, which helps them to track their food.
Those odor particles are then passed through the special smelling organ that rattlesnakes have in the roof of their mouth called the Jacobson’s organ.
Younger rattlesnakes, due to their rapid growth, will need to eat about once a week.
As mentioned before, rattlesnakes are tough. A couple of different species can actually go for almost two whole years without food. The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance agrees that about every two weeks an adult rattlesnake will go on the hunt.
When a snake wants to eat, it will (as mentioned above) hide and wait in the dark until it can reach its prey. Once it has bitten the animal of its choice, it just needs to wait for it to die. Rattlesnakes don’t suffocate their prey like constrictors.
Instead, once the prey has succumbed to the venom, the snake will follow its trail and swallow it whole. The snake will digest its meal as it goes down, which is a process that can take three to five days to finish.
Generally, the warmer a snake’s body is, the faster their food will digest.
How a Rattlesnake Uses Heat Vision
The rattlesnake is also equipped with heat vision.
It has special heat-sensitive pits on either side of its head that can sense its prey’s body heat. If the prey is even just slightly warmer than the dark background, the snake will be able to see it and strike at it. This is a prime reason why snakes hunt at night.
They can see their prey, but the prey can rarely see them, making the catch a whole lot easier than it would be otherwise. A rattlesnake can lunge and attack in half a second.
The moment it latches on to its prey, it injects venom which will eventually kill the prey.
How a Rattlesnakes’ Venom Works
Rattlesnake venom has been the subject of a whole lot of testing because of its diversity.
Potency differs by breed. For example, the sidewinder’s venom is less potent than the western diamondback rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes control the amount of venom they inject into their victims.
Their venom is stored in venom glands located above the upper jaw. It is then transferred through the venom duct and into their hollow fangs (also referred to as tubular fangs).
What Do Rattlesnakes Eat?
The rattlesnake’s diet consists mostly of rodents such as:
Rats, mice, and ground squirrels are all nocturnal mammals which makes them ideal for a snake’s hunting practices. They are easy to find in grasslands, fields, meadows, and even some residential areas. Snakes can often be found in these same areas, making it easy for them to hunt these rodents.
Lizards are also part of a rattlesnake’s diet, though typically younger snakes prefer lizards more than adult snakes do.
You might be wondering, how on earth does a rattlesnake catch birds? A rattlesnake that has adapted to hunting birds depends on “unlikely cooperation.”
When snakes hunt squirrels (rock squirrels specifically) and the squirrel spots the snake, it will shake its tail and throw rocks and dirt onto the snake until it is buried. Snakes that are used to hunting mammals will usually give up when this happens; if the element of surprise is lost, the squirrel will be able to get away.
However, a snake that is adapted to hunting birds won’t react when the squirrel does this. It will allow itself to become buried, thus giving it an extra layer of camouflage. This makes it possible for the snake to lie hidden until an unsuspecting bird wanders a little too close.
The snake can then lunge high, dropping the entire length of its body on top of the bird so it can hold its bite until the venom does its job.
Fun fact: Rattlesnakes can swim!
This is another method of hunting they will use, though this is not as common because water is not a rattlesnake’s natural element. As mentioned above, they do eat frogs and lizards and even sometimes fish. This makes rivers and ponds ideal hunting grounds.
They will also take to the water if they need shelter, escape from harassment, or need to find a mate.
How do Rattlesnakes Strike?
Rattlesnakes will strike and bite down onto their prey. Rattlesnakes tend to eat their prey headfirst; bones, organs, and everything.
They swallow their prey whole and it typically takes them five days to digest it all. They can digest the bones of their prey with their potent stomach acid and digestive enzymes which are not found in humans. These particular enzymes mean that no regurgitation is necessary for them.
Below is a video of a sidewinder rattlesnake striking a mouse.
As shown in the video, the snake
What viewers were not able to see up close was the rattlesnake’s hollow fangs injecting venom into the mouse. This venom will immobilize the prey, meaning that the only thing left to do is swallow the mouse.
The venom does not only stop the prey from escaping, it kick-starts the snake’s digestive process.
Eating Habits of Different Rattlesnake Species
There are 36 known species of rattlesnakes with about 70 subspecies, all native to North and South America.
The most common species are called the sidewinder, the copperhead, eastern/western diamondback, and the prairie rattlesnake. Some information on each of these species will be covered down below.
Prairie Rattlesnakes typically live anywhere from 16-24 years.
They are known to have a stout body, a triangular head, a blunt nose, and a very long slim neck. Skin colors vary anywhere from brown to pale green. It varies due to various climates and habitats.
Their bodies are covered in dark blotches, gradually turn into rings nearing the tail. Prairie rattlesnakes prefer open grasslands and prairies but are known to navigate forested areas as well. They cover the largest geographical area than any other rattlesnake species in the United States, living beyond the states to Canada all the way down to Mexico.
According to The Nature Conservancy Non-Profit Organization, prairie rattlesnakes are known for grouping together in hibernation dens, or even taking the home of the victims they digest.
The dead prey won’t be needing their home any longer anyway.
Their maximum body length is about 3 feet, which is shorter than many other species. One might suppose that a rattlesnake’s first line of defense is their rattler or even their fangs, but it is actually their camouflage that protects themselves first and foremost. It takes a lot less energy to hide or even scurry away than it does to strike whatever comes their way. If that were the case, rattlesnakes would have to eat way more often than their typical biweekly feeding.
They also only have a limited amount of venom at a time, so they won’t want to waste it.
Eastern & Western Diamondback
Diamondback rattlesnakes are the biggest known rattlesnakes in the world, growing to be 3-7 feet in length.
There are rare cases where it grows to 7 feet, but the average for a full-grown adult is 5 feet. They eat every 2-3 weeks. Their triangular-shaped head and two dark diagonal lines on each side of their face run from their eyes to their jaws. One of the easiest ways to identify a diamondback species from other species is the diamond-shaped patterns found along its back.
According to National Geographic, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes live in dry areas.
This might include pine flatwoods, sandy dunes or forests, or anywhere that contains scrublands. They span from North Carolina to Florida and Louisiana. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is known to be blackish, olive green, or gray. Light reflected off of this snake’s keeled scales makes its skin appear dull, making it easier for them to camouflage.
Rattlesnakes’ tails are hollow and the scales around the rattler range from brown to gray and are banded with dark rings.
Western diamondback rattlesnakes, otherwise known as Texas Diamondbacks, occupy various regions in the south. They can be found in southern California, southern New Mexico, Arizona, and central and western Texas.
These species are divergent in their habitats, occupying anywhere down to sea level to 7,000 feet. It lives in desert flats habitats, grasslands, rocky hillsides, forests, coastal prairies, and river bottoms. On occasion, this particular snake will attack and eat animals that weigh more than itself! Wow, that is crazy cool.
How does one differentiate between the western and eastern diamondback species?
Western diamondbacks have black and white banding while eastern diamondbacks have black and tan banding according to Mark Vins, CEO and Founder of Brave Wilderness on YouTube. Below is one of his videos that demonstrated him catching a wild diamondback and explaining the species in further detail.
The unique thing about the sidewinders is their horns, which are directly above the eye sockets.
They are typically a much smaller species than the diamondback species and are known as the horned rattlesnake. Scientists are unsure what exactly these horns are used for, but they think it may be useful for when these snakes bury themselves in the sand. This ridge could help them keep sand out of their eyes.
Their venom is not as dangerous as the diamondback rattlesnake but is still venomous.
They are called sidewinders because of their unique slithering movements. They will slither off to one side, creating this beautiful S-shaped pattern with their long narrow bodies.
This behavior also makes them one of the fastest rattlesnakes known to humankind. They feed on rodents, lizards, and insects. They can slither normally, but they usually don’t because their standard method is effective and fast. It’s especially helpful in terms of navigating the loose sand that they travel on.
These creatures are also known to be nocturnal.
How Do Rattlesnakes Mate?
Depending on their geographical location, rattlesnakes generally tend to mate in the early spring or even summer.
Southern native species will usually mate in the spring as soon as winter’s hibernation is over. Snakes who are native to the north will usually mate right before hibernation which allows the female snake to store the sperm until the next spring. Male snakes will find female snakes by following their scents.
When he finds a willing mate, he will deposit his sperm, a process that can take several hours to complete. Males will often fight for mates using their elaborate combat dance.
Most snake species give birth by laying eggs.
Rattlesnakes also lay eggs but differently. Eggs are gestated and incubated inside the mother’s body. When they are ready to hatch, the mother snake will give live birth to several baby snakes all encased in a clear membrane.
Southern native snakes will give birth in the fall while northern species will usually give birth in the spring or early summer. All species usually give birth annually.
Baby rattlesnakes will live off of the yolk for their first week of life, then move on to hunting on their own. They will need to eat every week or so to keep up with their growing bodies.