FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — All across America, the sweltering days from mid-July to August mark the most likely times for people to encounter rattlesnakes, says University of Arkansas rattlesnake expert Steve Beaupre. Unfortunately, such encounters often end in tragedy — for the rattlesnake.
"Nine times out of ten, when a person encounters a snake, he or she is going to kill it," said Beaupre.
When Beaupre sees a rattler, however, he traps it, anesthetizes it and inserts a fingernail-sized radio transmitter into its body under the skin. Then he releases the snake back into the wild, and spends the summer tracking its movement and studying its physiology and behavior at sites in Arkansas, Texas and Arizona.
Rattlesnakes normally blend into the forest floor, using the leaf cover as camouflage. They can remain immobile in the same spot for days, waiting for prey, Beaupre said.
Most people who spend time in the woods have probably stepped right over rattlesnakes without realizing it, he said. Rattlesnakes tend to hunker down and avoid human contact.
"The only time you might get into trouble is when you step on one," he said.
But by mid-July, male rattlesnakes are on the move, looking for mates.
"They have a very high profile when they do that," Beaupre said. They will cross roads and may travel for miles in hopes of finding a female.
As a result of their amorous preoccupation, many rattlesnakes end up flattened on highways. And others get shot or hacked to death by people who fear their bites.
Nationwide about 7,000 people get treated for snake bites each year, and about 5-10 people die annually from poisonous snake bites. To put these numbers in perspective, more people die from lightning strikes or bee stings, Beaupre said. Most, if not all, of the snake-related deaths can be prevented by proper medical care, he said.
The real danger stems from people’s fear of the animals – and the potential for eliminating yet another species. The timber rattlesnakes Beaupre studies in the Ozarks have become extinct in other parts of their range and are protected by law in almost half the states they can be found in.
Rattlesnakes keep the squirrel, mouse and rat populations in check, each animal eating up to dozens per year. If the snakes disappear, a delicate balance will be forever lost.
"Our survival depends upon the biodiversity we live in," Beaupre said. "That diversity includes more than just the animals that are cuddly and fuzzy."
People overestimate the chances of snakebite, Beaupre said. He should know. Every time he walks into his laboratory, the walls echo with the warning rattle sounds most people fear. But Beaupre and his graduate students, who handle the animals regularly, have never even been nibbled upon.
Beaupre follows a few simple rules to avoid snake bites: Always look where you put your hands and feet. Never put your hands and feet where you can’t see. And never pick up a snake unless you are sure it’s not venomous.
Beaupre follows the rattlesnakes in their forest treks, studying what they eat, when they mate, how far they range and how fast they grow in relationship to temperature and moisture. This year’s cool, rainy Ozark spring, for instance, rendered the 25 radio tagged animals sluggish, he said.
"If we understand how individuals are affected by environmental change, then we can predict what might happen in the future and assess the potential environmental impact of certain changes," Beaupre said.
The male rattlesnakes who travel far and find females this summer will mate. The female will store the sperm until the spring, when she will try to eat enough to generate fat and produce follicles that she can then fertilize with the sperm.
If the rattlesnake doesn’t have enough fat, she can reabsorb the follicles and not become pregnant — a handy biological mechanism for an animal whose food supply varies greatly from year to year, Beaupre said. She can store the sperm for another year, to use when she has reached a critical mass.
If she does catch enough prey, the sperm will fertilize the follicles, and the female will find a spot to stay warm, where she may not eat again until the babies are born in mid-August to mid-September. Some snakes lay eggs, but rattlesnakes give birth to live young, Beaupre said.
"We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what we can learn about these fascinating animals," he said.
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