Rattlesnakes are fascinating and I have always wanted to know if they nurse their young. So I did some research, and here’s what I found.
Do rattlesnakes nurse their young? Rattlesnakes do not nurse their young. Snakes as a species do not nurse their young. Only mammals nurse their young, and rattlesnakes are not mammals.
So how do the baby rattlesnakes eat? They can’t hunt until their first shed, about a week after they are born. Their mothers can’t feed them because they don’t lactate. The answer surprised me.
How Rattlesnakes Care for Their Young
It is a popular belief that rattlesnake mothers abandon their young as soon as they’re mature. That is simply not true. In reality, rattlesnakes are very good mothers.
Rattlesnake mothers are extremely protective of their young. They stay with the newly birthed snakes and guard them until their first shed, which takes about a week. After the first shed, the young snakes disperse and begin life on their own.
In some rattlesnake species, the mother rattlesnake is darker than the younger ones. This means that the mother can garner and give off heat. She can keep her babies warm. Sometimes, she can retain this heat well into the night, when the snake family has all crowded together for protection. Heat will help the babies grow, shed, and get out on their own.
A young rattlesnake family will live in a group until the babies disperse. Besides guarding and keeping them warm, the mother snake will also keep the baby snakes from wandering away from the group. If they try, the mother snake might give a gentle tap, or she might block their path with her body.
Why Rattlesnake Mothers Can’t Nurse Their Young
Rattlesnakes can’t lactate. In fact, no reptile can. Most often, only animals that can lactate are called ‘mammals’. They get this name from a very specific part that all mammals have in common.
That part is something called the ‘mammary glands’. This gland is the part that makes milk for offspring. This can usually only occur in females that have recently given birth.
Snakes don’t have mammary glands. So, they can’t produce milk for their offspring. Therefore, the baby snake lives off the yolk in their egg.
How Young Rattlesnakes Survive
How baby rattlesnakes eat relies a lot on how they’re born. In humans, for example, the pregnant mother carries the baby in her belly. Also inside her belly is a sack about the size of the baby. This is called the placenta.
The baby is connected to the placenta via the umbilical cord, and the placenta provides oxygen and nutrients to the baby. Lots of mammals give birth this way. However, this is not how snakes do it.
Mother rattlesnakes give birth using a process called ovoviviparity. This means that the mother snake keeps the embryo, in a sort of shell-less egg, in her body until it is mature. So this means that while the baby snake is maturing, it survives off the nutrients in the egg yolk. There is no placenta or umbilical cord connecting the baby to the mother.
The baby will use the nutrients in the egg yolk until it is completely mature. When the baby is ready and mature, the mother snake gives birth to squiggling, already mature babies. The young snake will not hunt until its first shed. After it sheds, it is ready to hunt on its own.
Not all snakes give birth using ovoviviparity. The United States alone is home to over 200 types of snake, and most of them lay eggs. Of the four venomous snakes in the US, the coral snake is the only one that lays eggs. The copperhead, the water moccasin, and the rattlesnake are pit vipers and do not lay eggs.
Every animal has to eat. Every single one. It’s where we get our nutrition and energy to survive. So when the rattlesnake has grown, and ready to hunt on its own, what will it eat?
Rattlesnakes are carnivorous animals, meaning they eat only meat. They eat mice, rats, birds, and other small animals. The rattlesnake hunts by lashing out at the prey, and injecting it with venom through its fangs. If the animal tries to move away after being poisoned, the snake will follow its scent.
When the animal is dead, the snake will begin to swallow it, usually starting head-first. The stomach acid of rattlesnakes is extremely strong, so it can digest flesh and bone. If the snake is still hungry, it will continue hunting. If it is full, it will find a safe, warm spot to curl up in and rest while digesting.
Where do rattlesnakes live? We have a tendency to assume rattlesnakes only live in the desert, where they can hunt the mice that live near the rocks, and where they can bask in the sun gloriously unperturbed. However, in reality, rattlesnakes can live almost anywhere. They have been found in prairies, marshes, and forests. They can survive temperatures below freezing and can recover from temperatures as low as 4 degrees above zero. They prefer temperatures ranging from 80 to about 90 degrees, but are very versatile, and can survive almost anywhere, provided they have a decent food source.
How does rattlesnake venom work? Most rattlesnake venom is hemotoxic, meaning it will break down and destroy tissue and skin. It will also cause coagulopathy or disrupted blood clotting. Some species of rattlesnake, most notably the tiger rattlesnake, carry a presynaptic neurotoxin that causes paralysis.
Most venom is a mixture of five to 15 enzymes, various metal ions, biogenic amines, lipids, free amino acids, proteins, and polypeptides. It contains components designed to immobilize and disable the prey, as well as digestive enzymes which break down tissue to prepare for later ingestion. However, rattlesnakes are not aggressive unless they are provoked. They will only attack if they are cornered in an open area with nowhere to hide. Usually, they will retreat from a human if they are aware one is coming.
How does the rattlesnake’s rattle grow? The rattle is composed of a series of hollow, interlocked segments made of keratin, which are created by modifying the scales that cover the tip of the tail. The contraction of special “shaker” muscles in the tail causes these segments to vibrate against one another, making the rattling noise (which is amplified because the segments are hollow) in a behavior known as tail vibration. At birth, a pre-button is present at the tip of the snake’s tail; it is replaced by the button several days later when the first skin is shed. However, no sound can be made by the rattle until a second segment is added when the skin is shed again.
A new rattle segment is added each time the snake sheds its skin, and the snake may shed its skin several times a year, depending on food supply and growth rate. However, even though the rattlesnakes try to protect the rattle by moving with it held upright, the rattles still get hit with and against things, so they break. This is why the length of the rattle is not usually a clue as to how old the snake is.