The shake of a rattlesnake’s tail strikes fear in the hearts of most who hear it. These reptiles are called rattlesnakes because their tails rattle—make a series of sharp noises when they shake—right before the snakes strike. But now, some of them have gone silent.
Although a rattlesnake’s sound can be scary, it serves as a warning that the snake is nearby. People within hearing distance know to steer clear if they want to avoid a poisonous attack. Imagine if this venomous animal gave no warning before you crossed its path. Isn’t a silent snake a whole lot scarier than a rattling one?
According to a recent report by National Public Radio (NPR), it appears some rattlesnakes in South Dakota can no longer rattle. Terry Phillip, a snake expert at Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, South Dakota, has come across quite a few prairie rattlesnakes that are, apparently, silent.
Phillip told NPR that he can spot a silent snake by looking at its tail. If the snake has a “curlicue tail” similar to a pig’s tail, says Phillip, that is a sign the tail muscles have atrophied, or lost their size, because of disease or lack of use.
If a snake’s tail muscles don’t work, then the snake can’t make that signature rattle noise that warns larger animals, including humans, to stay away.
What is behind the appearance of these quiet killers? Phillip believes the atrophied tail muscles could be a genetic defect. That means the defective tail is being passed down through the snakes’ offspring.
Brian Smith, a professor and herpetologist (a scientist who studies reptiles and amphibians) at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, says a genetic defect could be one reason for rattlesnakes having disabled tails. But it might not be the only reason.
“Snakes do get abnormalities,” Smith told NPR. “Snakes do get their tails broken during failed predation attempts.” (Predation is when one animal hunts and kills another for food.)
Right now, information about South Dakota’s silent snakes has been reported only by people who have come across the reptiles. Scientists have not yet done extensive studies on defective rattlers. Nevertheless, if you’re out hiking in prairie rattlesnake territory, it’s a good idea to keep your eyes open, because those snakes could sneak up on you!