We all know that there's a specific purpose to a snake's rattle— to scare larger animals and humans away. And it generally works! Hearing that rattle signals immediate danger and most of us move away as quickly as possible. But what if you couldn't hear the rattle and be warned? What if you sat down on a log or were walking down a trail and didn't know that a snake was inches from you because there was no warning rattle?! Some experts say that's what is happening with the Crotalus Viridis¸ or the prairie rattlesnake in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Over the past couple of years, naturalists have noticed many rattlesnakes with “curly-Q” tails, like you find on pigs. The tail muscles on these snakes have atrophied and can’t move the rattle. Snakes that have this genetic defect are the ones that are surviving. They reproduce and pass along that genetic defect to their offspring. The benefit to the snake is that if they are not heard, they are not killed. Because when most people hear that chilling rattle, if they have a garden shovel or gun available, it's all over for the snake.
Most people WANT to hear the rattle. It's helpful to both snakes and humans. These reptiles don't really want to bite humans— that would be a waste of venom on something they can't eat. So rattling warns us to get away, saving both species. Two hundred years ago when Native Americans were the only people in South Dakota, a rattlesnake would rattle and they would respect it and leave it alone. When white settlers moved in, however, and heard a rattlesnake rattle, they instantly killed it. So perhaps this genetic abnormality is actually saving rattlesnakes from certain death by humans?
There is no scientific data to back up this theory other than from observing that the rattlesnakes are developing this behavior, but it's worth keeping in mind for those who spend a lot of time in the desert or woods where rattlesnakes live. Keep in mind that if someone is bitten by a rattlesnake, the old wives tales about sucking out the poison, drinking alcohol, and other methods work won’t. The best thing is to carry basic First Aid supplies in your backpack, and then get help right away— get to a hospital and get anti-venom. Better yet, don't take a chance. Wear light-weight snake gaiters or snake boots and you won't have to worry about getting bitten— whether that snake is able to send a warning rattle or not.