The Eastern diamondback rattlesnake is a formidable predator with a large and powerful body. In fact, it is one of the largest rattlesnake species, and one of the heaviest venomous snakes in the Americas. It is also one of the most dangerous venomous snakes on the Northern American continent. Although dangerous and intimidating, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are typically shy and live quiet lives far from humans. They can, however, take down much larger prey than many other rattlesnake species. Where do these snakes live, and how do they hunt? What do eastern diamondback rattlesnakes eat?
Where do Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes Live?
Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes live in the southeastern United States. They can be found in Florida and the Florida Keys, southern North Carolina, eastern South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and southern Mississippi. They once lived in eastern Louisiana as well. However, the last eastern diamondback rattlesnake seen in the state was in 1995, so many experts believe that this snake is extirpated (locally extinct) in Louisiana. In North Carolina eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are endangered and are protected by state laws. Because of their declining populations, these snakes are under review to possibly be listed as a U.S. Endangered Species as well.
The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is very adaptable and can live in several different habitats. This snake often lives in pine and turkey oak forests, mixed woodlands, salt marshes, sand dunes, and some coastal areas. However, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes appear to be particularly fond of swamp forests, mesic and xeric hammocks (evergreen forests with sandy, well-drained soils), and wet prairies during dry seasons. These snakes do not climb very often, but they are excellent swimmers and have been observed crossing water miles away from land.
Like other cold-blooded snakes, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake uses the sun to help regulate its body temperature and can often be seen basking in the sunlight. When temperatures are cooler this snake will keep warm in tortoise burrows, tree crevices, armadillo holes, hollow logs, and under tree roots. In areas where winters are too cold, it will use one of these shelters to brumate until spring.
What Does the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake Eat?
The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is a carnivore that mainly feeds on birds and small mammals. As one of the largest rattlesnakes, this snake can eat large prey like adult cottontail rabbits and even young turkeys. One eastern diamondback rattlesnake was even reported to have eaten a woodpecker as well as her nest full of eggs. These snakes can eat lizards and large insects on occasion, but typically choose larger prey items.
A Complete List of Foods Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes Eat:
- Cottontail rabbits
- Marsh rabbits
- Rice rats
- Birds (such as bobwhite quail, towhees, king rail, young wild turkeys, etc.)
- Large insects
What do Baby Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes Eat?
Rattlesnakes mate every few years and are ovoviviparous, which means that they carry their eggs inside their bodies and later give birth to live young. Female rattlesnakes give birth to anywhere between 8-29 babies in the late summer or early fall. Baby eastern diamondback rattlesnakes mostly eat mice and rats, and sometimes smaller ground-dwelling birds. Because they are a larger species, even baby snakes are big enough to hunt and eat these smaller mammals, and only eat lizards on occasion.
What Predators Eat Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes?
Since eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are so large and bulky, they typically do not have to worry about predators. Baby eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, on the other hand, are small and vulnerable to hungry predators. There are many animals who hunt and eat young rattlesnakes, like eagles, hawks, snakes, bobcats, hogs, and wading birds.
The biggest threat to the eastern diamondback rattlesnake is humans, both accidental and intentional. These snakes are prone to basking in the sun near roads, putting them in danger of vehicles. In addition, humans often have misconceptions about eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, and in fear will attempt to kill any snake on sight. Unfortunately, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are often actively persecuted by humans, even though this is illegal in many areas. These snakes also suffer from habitat loss and alteration.
How do Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes Hunt?
Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes have two methods of hunting. At times, they can actively pursue and attack their prey head on. However, more commonly they take on the role of an ambush predator, using their heat-sensing pit organs to detect prey. The snake will find a good hiding place and curl its body into a tight coil, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice when its prey walks by. These snakes are extremely patient and can wait in this position for an entire week without moving!
When it attacks, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake bites its prey with large hollow fangs full of toxic venom. Rather than risk breaking its fangs during a struggle with its prey, the snake quickly releases the animal after biting. Although broken and shed fangs do grow back, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes do not like taking the risk. The prey animal may attempt to run away, but the venom will take hold quickly, causing paralysis and death. The snake will then use its excellent sense of smell to track down the animal and swallow it whole. Depending on the size of its last meal, an eastern diamondback rattlesnake could go 1-2 weeks before eating again.
Is the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake Dangerous to Humans?
The eastern diamondback rattlesnake it the most venomous snake in North America with a large, powerful body. This snake also has very long fangs that can inject a large amount of venom in a single bite. Its venom is a hemotoxic composition that kills off red blood cells, causing pain, swelling, discoloration, tissue damage and necrosis.
Although dangerous, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are shy and prefer quiet lives far away from large animals and humans. These snakes are not typically aggressive and will commonly rattle a loud warning to humans who get near them. When given the opportunity, an eastern diamondback rattlesnake will choose to slither away from danger whenever possible. However, these snakes can and will defend themselves when necessary. They will only bite in defense, but they can strike up to 1/3 of the length of their body, so it is best to give them a very wide berth.
You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be bitten by an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, although it does happen on rare occasions. Most bites from these snakes, however, occurred because the snake was accidentally stepped on. Since eastern diamondback rattlesnakes have camouflage coloring, it is important to keep your eyes peeled anytime you are walking or hiking outdoors, just in case.
What Do Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes Look Like?
Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are large and heavy, with thick, long bodies. These snakes are the largest of any rattlesnake species and can reach lengths up to 8 feet long! However, it is more common for eastern diamondback rattlesnakes to be between 3 ½ to 5 ½ feet in length, and weigh between 2 and 8 pounds.
The body of the eastern diamondback rattlesnake is brown, tan, beige, yellowish, grey, or olive, with dark brown or black diamond-shaped markings running down the middle of its back. Each diamond marking has a light-colored center and yellow or cream outlines. The scales along the snake’s body are keeled with textured ridges, and near the tail there are dark bands instead of diamonds. Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are lighter in color than the western diamondback rattlesnake, although the two species have a similar appearance. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake has a very large head with a thin neck. Behind each eye is a dark stripe with white or yellow borders that runs backwards to the snake’s mouth. Baby eastern diamondback rattlesnakes look like miniature adults, but are much smaller, starting at only 12 inches in length.
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