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Curiosity Corner: Rattlesnakes: the good, the bad, and the ugly
June 03, 2016 Gretchen Deter   

Read more by Gretchen Deter

Photo by Lisa Betz/Gering Citizen This baby rattler was spotted on the prairie south of the Scotts Bluff National Monument’s South Bluff. He was let be after giving hikers a good scare.

Well, it’s summer again. The Good (swimming, hiking, picnicking), The Bad (flies, mosquitos, ticks), The Ugly (hail, heat, and rattlesnakes). What… rattlesnakes? We all better pay attention to the “Ugly” part of summer.

Yes, we all know that rattlesnakes, are sneaky, creepy, slithery, and scary. We also know to stop, look, and listen when we hear a “hisssssss or a rrrrrattle.” Well, maybe not stop, but for sure look and listen because they are out for summer and we might just trip over one. An interesting thing about a rattler, though, is that they really aren’t out looking for little barefooted kids to swallow up in one gulp. If we don’t mess with them, they will probably not mess with us. However, that is no excuse for being careless when out hiking, biking or picnicking. Rattlers have just average vision but they have an uncanny sense of smell. They have noses and they have olfactory glands on their tongues. That is why they always “stick out their tongues.” The more they smell, the farther they stick out their tongues.

The “ugly” part of the rattlesnake is that it can kill an animal or a person. They have retractable fangs that are filled with poisonous venom. Once they bite their victim, the venom comes out of their fangs into the body of its victim and causes a number of calamitous reactions. The poison can cause such responses as swelling, paralysis, breathing difficulty, etc. (This is not a science article so enough of the ugly stuff.)

One “bad” part of the rattlesnake is the population density in this area. A den of rattlers can number in the hundreds and it is difficult to keep those numbers low. They have been hunted, poisoned, and trapped with varying results. A second “bad” part of being in rattlesnake country is that they always seem to be in places people want to go, such as hiking and biking paths, rocky climbing cliffs, and near remote picnic grounds. We don’t like it, but I guess they have a right to their space, too.

Believe it or not, there is a “good” side to the rattlesnake. They are pretty good at keeping the rodent population down. They eat mice, prairie dogs, gophers, and any small prairie animal that crosses their path. Venom can be “harvested” for commercialization. Their venom is used to make anti-venom serum.
It is being tested for treatment of such diseases as dementia, heart problems, and many other medical problems.

Probably the best “good” part of a rattlesnake is the uses people have found for their different body parts. A pair of snakeskin boots are pretty pricey but in high demand. They make snakeskin belts (one large snakeskin can make one belt), purses, hats, briefcases, and suitcases. The snake meat is edible (a person can find rattlesnake sausage on the Internet is they are so inclined). The rattlers and the fangs are commonly used in jewelry and clothing decoration. Rattles are also used as musical instruments. Some guitarists put them inside their guitar for effect or to keep the guitar from warping (I’m not so sure about that last fact). Some people just collect the skins or the rattles to mount on their wall or put them in a display jar. No thanks.

Most pioneers settling on the prairie had to deal with rattlesnakes. Of course, this resulted in folklore about rattlesnakes (most of it based on evil superstitions). The Native Americans and the pioneers believed that the sight of a rattler was a bad omen: a death, a defeat in battle, an illness, bad weather, and more. However, a rattle in a fiddle would bring good luck or a skin over the door may protect those inside. Regardless of whether the omens were good, bad, or ugly, they were part of pioneer life. However, today we all need to face the reality of the good, bad, and ugly of the western rattlesnake. So, be watchful as you enjoy your summer.
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