Rattlesnakes are the only venomous reptile in British Columbia that are potentially dangerous to humans.
Because of this, they also are the most feared and misunderstood snake in our province.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. This page will:
Click on the links above to go directly to that section of the page.
If you’d like more information, check out the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake page or our Web Links.
Let’s start by having a closer look at a rattlesnake.
The picture below shows the 3 key features you can look for to help you accurately identify a rattlesnake.
1. The Rattle or Button
(see below for more
info on the rattle)
2. The large triangular head and distinct neck
This is clear even on a
3. The large round blotches with lighter ‘halos’ around them
Rattlesnakes have a fourth feature that no other snake in British Columbia has: heat pits. However, it can be difficult to see the pits, so don't try to check them out on a wild rattlesnake. Heat pits are cavities found on either side of the head between the nose and the eyes. They help the snake to locate its prey using the infrared heat waves given off by their warm prey.
Hopefully now you have a good idea of what a rattlesnake looks like. Visit the Rattlesnake Photo Gallery and see if you can pick out the key features on each photo.
Of course, sight is only one way to identify a rattlesnake. Often the first thing you notice is the sound a scared rattlesnake makes when it rattles its tail. Click here to check out a video clip and hear what a rattlesnake really sounds like. (8.2 MB video)
However, newborn rattlesnakes cannot make a rattling sound because they are not born with a complete rattle. When a rattlesnake is born, it has a small horny tip on the end of its tail called a button. The button by itself does not make any noise. As soon as the snake sheds for the first time (usually within its first summer), it will add a segment of dried tissue to the button. The button and the segment together rattle when the snake shakes its tail. Each time the snake sheds a new segment may be added to the rattle. Click here to see a video clip of a juvenile rattlesnake. (1.6 MB video) Notice the small black button - even though the juvenile is shaking its tail, it does not rattle.
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Now that you know the key characteristics of a rattlesnake, you’re ready to compare the species most commonly confused with rattlesnakes.
Of the 9 species of snakes in British Columbia, there are 4 that overlap in range and that are commonly confused with rattlesnakes. They are:
Once you've looked at all of the comparisons, try our Snake Quiz to check your knowledge!
Many people recreate in areas where rattlesnakes live. Others work or live in and around the grasslands rattlers call home. So what should you do if you come across a snake?
The best thing to do when coming across any snake is to:
Look at snakes, admire them, but always leave them alone. This is true even if you think you’ve encountered a harmless garter snake. Even professionals sometimes have difficulty telling the species apart, so you know how the saying goes – better safe than sorry. In addition, no wild snake likes to be handled by a large, strange human. It is a frightening experience for them, and even a harmless snake has teeth and can bite if frightened enough.
In truth, usually rattlesnakes camouflage so well that you could walk within a foot of them and never even know they were there! And rattlesnakes are not interested in pursuing people – they do not see us as prey.
Regardless of whether you encounter a rattlesnake or a garter snake, killing or capturing snakes is illegal under British Columbia’s Wildlife Act. Quite a few of our snakes are threatened or in danger of extinction – and since snakes are an important part of the ecosystem, we need to protect every last one!
Remember, you are extremely unlikely to meet a rattlesnake face to face. Rattlesnakes are very good at camouflaging themselves, or getting out of the way long before you see them. This is especially true if you walk on established trails. You are very large and scary to a relatively small snake! However, when walking in areas where rattlesnakes may live, you may protect yourself in case of an accidental encounter by doing the following:
Increasingly, many people live in urban-rural interface areas, where city meets country. While this can be an attractive and peaceful living situation, you are more likely to encounter your wildlife neighbours – including snakes.
While you'll never be able to keep all snakes off your property, there are a few things you can do to limit these encounters, especially if you are concerned about rattlesnakes living in the area.
1) Snakes like to hide under cover objects like woodpiles, leftover construction materials, unused children’s wading pools or sand boxes, and rock piles. If you have a woodpile, elevate it so that you can clearly see if any critters are resting beneath. Keep your property tidy. Be careful when moving potential cover objects. Don’t use your hands – use a stick or tool to lever the object off of the ground.
2) Rattlesnakes mainly eat small mammals, so don’t provide a buffet of their favourite food. Discourage small mammals like mice and voles from living on your property by keeping your property tidy. Avoid making brush piles, and plug up any small mammal holes with dirt. Fill any cracks in your foundation. And if you don’t want gopher snakes or garter snakes visiting either, do not stock your backyard pond with fish or frogs. Fish and amphibians are favourite food items of many snakes.
3) If you have small children or pets that use your yard, it may be worthwhile to install a fine-mesh wire screen ('weldwire mesh') around your property. This should keep the majority of reptile neighbours out of your yard. If you have fencing already, this is a relatively easy project – just attach the wire screen to the base of the existing fence. Whether you are starting from scratch or adding to an existing fence, be sure to bury the screen at least 1 foot underground, and extend it at least a couple of feet above ground. This will help prevent small mammals from burrowing under the fence (and providing entranceways for snakes), and help stop snakes from moving under or over the fence.
4) Finally, education is key. Talk to your children about what to do if they encounter a snake. Small children especially may be tempted to touch novel and interesting animals like snakes. Teach them to appreciate wildlife with their eyes only!
Please remember, that all snakes in British Columbia are protected by law. It is illegal to kill or capture native wildlife without a permit or a licence. You can live in peace with your reptilian neighbours with the appropriate preparation. After all, it’s their neighbourhood too.
If a snake is encountered on your property or anywhere else where you feel the snake may be a threat to you, please leave the snake alone – usually it will leave on its own.
If you think the snake is a rattlesnake and this concerns you, do not approach the snake, attempt to remove it on your own, or harm it in any way. Call the Conservation Officer 24 hour Wildlife Sightings Hotline for assistance:
The operators of the hotline have a variety of resources they can use to advise and help you.
As always, prevention is the best medicine. Read the previous sections on how to protect yourself when visiting snake habitat, and how to make your property less attractive to snakes.
Many factors affect the severity and seriousness of a rattlesnake bite, and opinions on how to treat bites are varied. If you feel you are at risk of rattlesnake bite, discuss the issue with a medical doctor. By clicking below, you can access a paper on snake bites that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. This paper has pictures of different species of venomous snakes, and great comparisons between the general characteristics of venomous and non-venomous species. It talks about the effects of venom on the body, and how venomous snake bites are treated, both in the field and in the hospital.
Gold et al. 2002. Bites of venomous snakes. New England Journal of Medicine. Vol 347: 347-356.
Take note: Gold et al. 2002 found that most bites today are the result of people deliberately trying to handle, harm, or kill venomous snakes. So don’t put yourself at risk – give any snakes you encounter a respectful berth.
Yes! For many animals, biting is a reflex reaction. This reflex often remains intact even after the animal is dead or decapitated. In fact, it may remain intact for quite a while after the animal’s death. In other words, do not handle a rattlesnake, dead or alive.
No. Rattles are made of segments of tissue that are loosely connected together. When a rattlesnake is born, it has only a tiny nub of horny tissue at the tip of its tail (called a button). The true rattle is formed with the first shed, when a segment is added to the end of the button. And each time a rattlesnake sheds, a new segment is added to the rattle.
In a single year, a rattlesnake may shed many times, or it may not shed at all. Just like you, a snake’s growth depends on its environment and how much it has to eat. And in fact, the rattle will experience wear and tear over the snake’s lifetime. The rattle may be broken, or segments may be lost. So the rattle is not a good indicator of age, or even of how many times a snake has shed its skin.
Yes! Rattlesnakes are constantly forming new fangs behind the fangs currently in use. This is an important adaptation because the fangs are a vital tool enabling rattlesnakes to hunt and secure their prey. If the current fangs are broken, it is only a matter of time before a new pair is ready and in place in the upper jaw.
The best answer is that juvenile rattlers are probably as venomous or slightly less venomous as compared to adults. Juvenile rattlesnakes are born fully able to make and inject venom – after all, they have to eat too! Because they are smaller however, they may have less venom to inject, but the venom is as toxic as that of an adult. You should be just as careful around juvenile rattlesnakes as you are around adults. And remember, you can’t hear a juvenile rattlesnake if it hasn’t developed a functioning rattle yet.