As a venomous snake fan, I’ve spent more than my share of time hiking, driving and poking around in the woods looking for rattlesnakes. As a kid, I always hoped one day that I might be seen, on at least a small scale, as an expert on the topic and wanted to set out to find and identify all the different rattlesnakes that call our country home.
The basis of my knowledge started in books and then made its way to the internet. I had read a wide variety of books, visited hundreds of websites and viewed countless photos of rattlesnakes prior to setting out to find them on my own. Surely all of this research would prepare me for accurately identifying any snake that happened to cross my path. Little did I know, that Utah is prime habitat for one of most wildly variable rattlesnake on the planet!
I must have seen nearly a dozen different buzztails, before I finally came across a couple that looked vaguely similar to each other. Because I had studied range maps, and field guides, and rarely set out without the companionship of a fellow snake expert, I managed to come to the conclusion that they were all Great Basin Rattlesnakes, but was constantly confounded by doubt, that I would ever be able to correctly identify these serpents unless I knew exactly where it was found.
Thankfully, this frustration and confusion quickly turned to admiration and appreciation as I encountered each “new” looking specimen of what I would eventually come to affectionately call, “The box of chocolates rattlesnake”. Great Basin rattlers are, in my opinion, drastically under-appreciated for their variability and unique beauty. I now look forward to these encounters and anticipate the chance to add a new color morph to the ever-growing palette.
Though I had seen a handful of these snakes prior to meeting up with Shaun Vought, it was with him that I was first able to document the species with a photograph on something other than a cell phone. It was also the first time that I ever touched one.
Please note that this is a very bad idea! Your odds of getting bitten doing something like this go up dramatically. My excuse for catching this one with my bare hands, was that it was heading for very thick brush, and I did not have a snake hook or even a stick to aid in the capture. We were also doing snake research for Great Basin National Park at the time. However, after having officially “caught” my first rattler, bravado quickly overcame common sense, and I posed for the embarrassing “hero shot”. The much better photo is below.
The last day of my visit to the park, I got to handle and process another rattlesnake we found, using the proper technique. This individual was a light tan color with light pattern.
It wasn’t long after this encounter, that I finally purchased a new camera and went for a road cruise to find Utah Milk Snakes with another local friend, Jon Roylance. We came up empty on Milk Snakes, but we managed to find a handful of Great Basin Gopher snakes, and a couple of Great Basin rattlers.
What this first one lacked in bold pattern, it made up for with attitude! It was quite literally the first rattler I ever came across that lived up to the reputation most folks like to give them. Though it was not aggressive, it was certainly defensive.
No more than a quarter mile away we then stopped to move this much darker and very relaxed individual out of the road.
While down in Southern Utah, my friends and I came across this nice looking, silver Great Basin Rattlesnake crossing the road.
While hunting for lizards on a Fall day, I made my way onto some private property and was granted permission to nose around a bit by the owners. No more than 5 minutes later, I heard the familiar tell-tale warning of a rattlesnake… then another… and then yet another. I’m not about to tell the owners that they have a very active rattlesnake den on their property for fear that they may decide to kill them, but enjoy checking in on my scaly friends from time to time.
Since the den is in a rather sensitive area, I try not to draw too much attention to it, and don’t often take too many photos either. Over the last couple of years, I estimate that I have seen somewhere around 50 individual snakes at this spot, and even though they are likely all related, I have seen them in a wide variety of colors like yellow, orange, silver, brown, green, gray and tan!!!
As avid conservationists, it is always a treat to be able to welcome the next generation! Below is an expecting mother, patiently awaiting the birth of her babies.
Not long afterward, I was greeted by these friendly faces.
A common myth, is that baby rattlesnakes are born without a rattle. Although it is true that you can’t hear a newborn baby’s rattle, they are, as shown below, born with a pre-button to their rattle.
A few days after birth, the newborn rattlesnakes will go into their “blue phase”, in which their colors look dull and their eyes turn an opaque blue color. This is a sign that they are about to shed. Notice the blue eye below.
Since a new section is added to the rattle with each shed, the babies will soon have their first button to add to their pre-button, and will then be able to produce the audible warning they are famous for.
Though many rattlesnakes are killed by people every year, they can still be found somewhat regularly in some states, if you know when and where to look. Though I do target rattlers fairly often, it is not rare to find them when looking for other varieties of snakes as well. While on a recent road cruise one evening, my buddies and I located 3 Great Basin rattlers in the road. Each time we stopped to move them to safety, we were met with yet another “paint job”.
Our first find of the evening was this large gray specimen.
The second of the evening was this handsome brown specimen.
It was the third Great Basin Rattlesnake of the night that caught us the most off guard. When we jumped out of the car, we were only slightly more thrilled to catch the rare opportunity of seeing one of these creatures eat, as we were to find such a beautiful creamcicle colored animal.
In 2012, I went through a bit of a job transition, and did not have a lot of opportunity, for field-herping. However, I did manage to get away for a day or two, and I was very pleased to stumble upon this very handsome, yellow specimen. I think we found some 20 plus Great Basins this day, but this was my first of the day, and the best looking as well.
About a month later, I took my eight-year-old daughter road cruising with me. She is an avid snake fan, but informed me that the only snake she hoped she did not see, was a rattlesnake. We cruised up the little baby below, and she quickly changed her mind, and fell in love with the little snake. In addition to being wildly variable as adults, individual specimens of this species, can go through significant visual pattern changes from babies to adults as well. They often lose much of the contrast they have as babies, adding yet another dimension of variability, that makes finding different aged snakes, a pleasure.
Fellow Snake Buddy, Shaun Vought, is also very fond of venomous snakes and often has a camera close-at-hand when he comes across a buzztail. The next series of photos were all taken by him, and I feel they do an even better job of highlighting the variability of these interesting animals.
This first one, is a very yellow-green colored rattler with much more blotches and striping down its body than we typically see.
This next one seems to be a younger specimen with very high contrast between the light beige background and the dark chocolate blotches.
Next up is this rather old Great Basin Rattlesnake with an olive background and black blotches. It doesn’t necessarily make for an attractive variation, but it’s still always fun to see something a little different.
The following snake, is one of the odder examples of a Great Basin rattler I’ve seen. When Shaun first sent me the photo, my first thought was this it looks more like a Northern Pacific rattlesnake, but it seems to not exactly fit the mold there either. This photo was taken in Idaho where both species of snake do exist, and our best guess is that this specific animal may be a hybrid between the Great Basin and the Northern Pacific. Nice find Shaun!
This next one is yet another unique looking Great Basin Rattlesnake. The blotches on this rattler are multi-colored.
At this point, the term odd and unique fail to be good descriptors, as one defining characteristic of the Great basin Rattlesnake is in fact, its random appearance. Though Shaun and I have gotten better at our photography efforts over time, it could also be said that our photos sometimes do not do the animals justice. Such could be said with this reddish colored one, which is a variety I have yet to see for myself.
Another uncommon variation I do come across from time to time, is this light green, low contrast example of a Great Basin Rattlesnake.
No matter what they look like, the Great Basin Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus lutosus) is always a welcome encounter. Their mellow demeanor and shy behavior make them among the least aggressive snakes I encounter. They are quick to crawl away if given the chance and are often difficult to photograph, as they want nothing to do with humans. One goal at Snake Buddies, is to highlight all serpents for their great qualities, and to break through the common misconceptions, misinformation and blatant lies told about these great members of our natural world. If you have any questions, comments, photographs, or tales of your own to tell, please share them with us here. We’d love to hear from you!