Whether you’re a self-proclaimed snakophile or you’d rather keep your distance from all things that slither, it’s hard to deny that rattlesnakes are some of the most captivating reptiles on the planet. Their unique adaptations and defensive instincts make them equally feared and admired by humans everywhere.
But how much do you really know about the different types of rattlesnakes?
There are dozens of rattlesnake species slithering across our planet Earth, each of which boasts its own unique abilities and characteristics. In this article, we’ll introduce you to 21 of the most amazing types of rattlesnakes so you can impress your friends with your herpetological knowledge.
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The term ‘rattlesnake’ refers to a specific type of snake that has a rattle on the end of its tail. But have you ever stopped to think about how rattlesnakes are classified?
Like all snakes, rattlesnakes are part of the kingdom Animalia, phylum Chordata, and the class Reptilia. Below that, they’re all part of the order Squamata, which includes all reptiles that have scales, such as lizards.
Under the order Squamata, rattlesnakes are part of the clade Ophidia. This is the clade that includes all living snake species. There are a number of extinct suborders and families within the clade Ophidia that contain species that are closely related to modern snakes.
All living snakes belong to the suborder Serpentes, which is divided into two infraorders: Scolecophidia and Alethinophidia.
Most living snakes are classified within the infraorder Alethinophidia. The infraorder Scolecophidia contains only a small collection of snake species that are called blind or thread snakes.
Within the infraorder Alethinophidia, all other snakes are divided up into a number of families. The rattlesnakes belong to the family Viperidae. As its name suggests, the family Viperidae contains all of the “vipers,” which are all of the world’s venomous snakes.
There are 3 subfamilies within the family Viperidae:
- Azemiopinae – This subfamily contains just one genus, Azemiops, and two species: A. fear and A. kharini. These snakes are found only in southeastern Asia, primarily in China and Vietnam.
- Viperinae – Sometimes called the pitless vipers, the family Viperinae contains 13 genera and more than 4 dozen species. These snakes are primarily found in tropical and subtropical areas of Africa and Asia, but they also live in parts of Europe.
- Crotalinae – Also known as the pit vipers, the family Crotalinae contains 22 genera and more than 150 species, all of which are found in Eurasia and the Americas. These are the only venomous snakes found in the Americas.
The rattlesnakes are all part of the family Crotalinae, which also contains other snake types such as the lanceheads and Asian pit vipers.
All of the species in this family share a common feature, which is a deep pit that’s located between the nostril and the eye on both sides of the head. These pits allow the snakes to detect infrared radiation, giving them a finely-tuned ability to hunt small prey.
Below the family Crotalinae, the rattlesnakes are all part of two genera: Crotalus and Sistrurus.
These genera are divided based on genetic research, though the species in the genus Sistrurus are much smaller and they have a unique scale pattern. There are only 3 species in the genus Sistrurus: the massasauga, the Mexican massasauga, and the pigmy rattlesnake.
Meanwhile, there are anywhere from 30 to 60 species in the genus Crotalus, depending on who you ask. There’s some debate in the scientific community as to whether some of these species should actually be subspecies, which is why there’s such a large variation in the total number of species in the genus.
Want to impress your friends and family with all your rattlesnake knowledge? Here are some amazing rattlesnake fun facts that you ought to know.
All rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous, which means that they give birth to live young. This makes them different from the vast majority of other reptiles, whose young hatch from eggs that are laid outside the body.
But rattlesnake babies hatch from eggs, too. The difference is that rattlesnake eggs hatch inside the mother snake’s body. The baby snakes are then birthed from their mother in a live birth process that is similar to what we see in most mammals.
Ovoviviparity is fairly rare in the animal kingdom and it’s a trait that rattlesnakes share with only a small number of amphibians, insects, and other reptiles. Who knew?
2| A Rattlesnake’s Rattle Is a Hollow Structure Made from Keratin
A rattlesnake’s most characteristic feature—its rattle—is made from a protein called keratin, just like your fingernails and hair. It’s completely hollow inside, too, so there are no little bits inside that shake and make noise like a maraca.
In fact, rattlesnake rattles consist of a set of interlocking segments. These segments hold each other in place, but they have enough wiggle room between them that they can move around whenever a rattlesnake shakes its tail.
So, when you hear a rattlesnake’s rattle, the sound that you’re listening to is just the collision between each of these interlocking segments. A rattlesnake actually has to shake its tail anywhere from 50 to 100 times per second to make its rattling sound!
Check out this cool video that shows you exactly what a rattlesnake’s rattle really looks like:
3| Rattlesnakes Can Sense the Body Heat of Their Prey
Rattlesnakes are a type of snake known as a pit viper. These snakes boast a unique organ called a loreal pit on the side of their face.
Thanks to these loreal pits, rattlesnakes and other pit vipers have a finely tuned ability to sense heat. These pits can actually sense infrared radiation, giving them an edge over the small mammals that they hunt as prey.
In fact, a pit viper’s ability to sense infrared radiation through its loreal pits is so well-developed that it can still hunt moving objects when deprived of its ability to see and smell. If you want to learn more about how these loreal pits work, check out this awesome video:
4| Rattlesnake Babies are Called Snakelets
Yep, you heard it here, folks: rattlesnake babies are called snakelets. Okay, technically all snake babies are called snakelets, but we thought this fun fact was too cute to pass up.
Rattlesnake snakelets are particularly interesting, though, because, unlike adult rattlesnakes, they don’t have a rattle.
Baby rattlesnakes are born with only a single button of hard keratin at the end of their tail. As the snakelet grows and sheds its skin, it’ll add an additional ring of keratin to its tail. Over time, it will accumulate enough rings that it will create a rattling sound when it shakes its tail.
5| Fatal Rattlesnake Bites Aren’t Common in North America
Snake bites, in general, are extremely rare in North America and rattlesnake bites are no exception.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that only 5 people die in the United States from snake bites each year. While approximately 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the country annually, only a very small fraction of these people have severe complications from their injuries.
That said, you should never try to handle a rattlesnake (or any other wildlife for that matter) unless you’re trained to do so. Even if rattlesnake bites normally aren’t fatal, they can still cause serious injuries. If you’re bitten by a snake, seek out medical attention right away.
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Here are our answers to some of your most commonly asked questions about rattlesnakes:
How many different kinds of rattlesnakes are there?
There are anywhere from 30 to 60 kinds of rattlesnakes, depending on who you ask. There’s a lot of debate over whether some rattlesnakes should be categorized as subspecies or distinct species. That’s why there’s such a large range in the total number of rattlesnake species.
Where do rattlesnakes live?
Rattlesnakes are only found in North America, South America, and Central America. While there are plenty of other venomous snakes out there, rattlesnakes are endemic to the Americas and aren’t found anywhere else on Earth.
The most common rattlesnake is arguably the timber rattlesnake. However, other common species include the prairie rattlesnake, the western diamondback rattlesnake, and the eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
What is the most aggressive rattlesnake?
It’s difficult to know precisely which rattlesnake is the most aggressive. However, the eastern and western diamondback rattlesnakes are arguably the most deadly rattlesnakes in the United States. This is based on the total number of confirmed fatalities from eastern and western diamondback rattlesnake bites in the US.
Can rattlesnakes strike twice?
Rattlesnakes can strike twice. It is never a good idea to approach or handle a rattlesnake unless you have been specifically trained to do so by a qualified professional. If you get bitten by a rattlesnake, back away from the snake quickly but calmly and seek medical attention.
Although there are more than 3,000 types of snakes, only a few dozen snake species qualify as rattlesnakes. Despite the fact they all share a characteristic rattle, each rattlesnake species is unique and fascinating.
Here’s a look at 21 of the most interesting types of rattlesnakes in the world.
Found only in the southeastern United States, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus) is a large snake that’s known for its deadly venom.
The eastern diamondback is one of the heaviest venomous snakes in the world with an average weight of approximately 34 lbs (15 kg). The body usually has a mottled brown and yellow coloration as well as a distinct pattern of about 20 to 35 black-colored diamonds on its back.
The eastern diamondback is currently listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). However, the species has been extirpated from many states, including Louisiana, and it is a candidate for the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species List.
The western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) is one of the best-known venomous snakes in North America. It lives only in the south-central and southwestern parts of the United States and northern Mexico.
Known for its distinctive dusty gray color and black diamond-shaped splotches, the western diamondback is an iconic species within the desert regions of North America. It primarily feeds on kangaroo rats, prairie dogs, jackrabbits, voles, and other small- to medium-sized mammals.
Like its close cousin, the eastern diamondback, the western diamondback is listed as a species of least concern. However, the western diamondback has long been targeted by humans in the area as a “pest species.”
Aptly named, the Mexican west coast rattlesnake (Crotalus basiliscus) is a large serpent found along the western coastline of Mexico.
It is primarily found between the states of Sonora and Michoacán, and its primary habitat is in grasslands and other scrub ecosystems. The Mexican west coast rattlesnake is known for its highly toxic venom, though fatal attacks on humans are rare.
The Mexican west coast rattlesnake is listed as a species of least concern, owing primarily to its wide distribution throughout coastal Mexico. However, it is at threat of habitat loss to agriculture and it is sometimes hunted by humans.
The Santa Catalina rattlesnake (Crotalus catalinensis) is a rare pit viper that’s found only on Isla Santa Catalina in the Gulf of California. However, it is not to be confused with the southern Pacific rattlesnake, which is found on Santa Catalina Island in California’s Channel Islands.
If there’s one thing that makes the Santa Catalina rattlesnake unique, it’s the fact that it doesn’t actually have a rattle. It has a rattle-like structure on the end of its tail, but it can’t actually make a rattling sound.
The Santa Catalina rattlesnake is currently listed as critically endangered and its population is declining. It is at risk of extinction due to habitat loss and predation by introduced species, such as feral cats.
Sometimes called the sidewinder, the horned rattlesnake (Crotalus cerastes) is a small pit viper that lives in the southwestern US and northwestern regions of Mexico.
The horned rattlesnake’s defining feature is its characteristic horns, which are actually just a set of supraocular scales. It’s believed that these horns might provide shade and protection for the snake’s eyes.
This species lives primarily in desert environments and you can sometimes see sidewinder tracks left behind in the sand. In fact, the horned rattlesnake uses a unique form of locomotion called sidewinding where it pushes its body sideways across sandy slopes.
The Arizona black rattlesnake (Crotalus cerberus) is an easily identifiable serpent that lives only in the US state of Arizona. It’s primarily found in and around the San Francisco Mountains in the central part of the state.
This snake gets its name from the fact that it is nearly all black in color, save for a few white stripes, when fully grown. That said, the snake actually has the ability to change color, much like a chameleon, but it’s not clear why or how this happens.
The Arizona black rattlesnake is not listed by the IUCN, but researchers believe that it is quite rare. It lives primarily in high-elevation locales in remote parts of Arizona, so it is difficult to study.
Also called the middle American rattlesnake, the northwestern neotropical rattlesnake (Crotalus simus) is a highly venomous pit viper that lives primarily in southern Mexico and Central America.
It has a lightly colored set of scales with a series of distinct brown-colored triangles running down its back. However, its most characteristic feature is its flat nose, which helps differentiate it from other snakes in the area.
Researchers believe that the northwestern neotropical rattlesnake was highly revered by the ancient Mayans. It remains an important species in the culture of many Maya communities to this day.
The South American rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus) and its seven recognized subspecies are the most widely distributed rattlesnakes in South America.
Also known as the cascabel rattlesnake, this species is found nearly everywhere in the northern part of South America except for the Andes Mountains. It primarily lives in semi-arid environments, including in scrublands, grasslands, and dry forests, but you can also find it in more tropical parts of the continent.
Due to its wide distribution, the South American rattlesnake is listed as a species of least concern and it doesn’t have any particularly big threats to its long-term survival.
Found primarily in the eastern United States, the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is a common sight in woodland areas that stretch from Minnesota to New Hampshire.
The timber rattlesnake is a relatively small pit viper with an average weight of no more than about 3 lbs (1.4 kg). It’s fairly easy to identify due to its light brown coloration and distinctive banded pattern of darkly colored scales.
Although it has been extirpated in many parts of its range, the timber rattlesnake is listed as a species of least concern by the IUCN due to its wide distribution. It is a protected species in much of the Appalachians and it is classified as threatened in many states.
Boasting a distinctive set of striped scales, the suitably named tiger rattlesnake (Crotalus tigris) is a highly venomous serpent that lives in northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States.
For the most part, the tiger rattlesnake lives in rocky areas, steep canyons, and arid scrublands. They prefer to feed on small mammals, like kangaroo rats, but they’ve also been observed eating spiny lizards.
The tiger rattlesnake is currently listed as a species of least concern, however, it is at threat of habitat loss due to the increase in agriculture throughout its range. While it’s not widely hunted, its skin is commonly collected and sold in tourist souvenir shops in much of the desert southwest.
The ridge-nosed rattlesnake (Crotalus willardi) is a small pit viper that lives in southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and northwestern Mexico.
It primarily inhabits high-elevation locales that offer respite from the heat and aridity of the Sonoran Desert. In fact, the ridge-nosed rattlesnake is rarely found outside of the Madrean Sky Islands ecozone, which exists at the highest elevations of the major mountain ranges in the region.
The ridge-nosed rattlesnake is actually the state reptile of Arizona. It is listed as a species of least concern, however, more research is needed to understand the snake’s current population trends. In particular, the New Mexico subspecies of the ridge-nosed rattlesnake is listed as a threatened species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
One of the most widely distributed rattlesnakes in North America, the prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) is a pit viper whose range extends as far south as Mexico and as far north as southern Canada. It primarily lives in the Great Plains region and in the US Rocky Mountains.
The prairie rattlesnake usually boasts a light brown coloration, which helps it blend in well with the grass and brush of its native habitat. While the prairie rattlesnake generally spends its life on the ground, it will sometimes climb trees for shelter in harsh conditions.
There are two recognized subspecies of the prairie rattlesnake: the nominate subspecies, Crotalus viridis viridis, and the Hopi rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis nuntius). The Hopi rattlesnake lives primarily in Arizona and New Mexico and it is generally smaller than the other subspecies.
The Uracoan rattlesnake (Crotalus vegrandis) is one of the least-studied rattlesnakes in the world. It lives only in Venezuela and it is primarily found near the municipality of Uracoa, which is located in the northeastern part of the country.
Although it isn’t well-studied, the Uracoan rattlesnake is fairly easy to identify based on its predominantly sandy-brown coloration that’s interspersed with speckles of white scale pattern. This coloration helps it blend in well with its native habitat, which is a savannah-like region that’s situated just outside the Orinoco Delta.
Little is known about the Uracoan rattlesnake’s conservation status, but human development in its geographically small habitat is likely contributing to the species’ decline.
Appropriately named, the Aruba rattlesnake (Crotalus unicolor) is a pit viper that’s endemic to the island of Aruba, which is located just off the coast of Venezuela. However, some researchers consider it to be a subspecies of the South American rattlesnake.
Aruba rattlesnakes can be many different colors, though pink and brown are the most common. The coloration of the snake helps it blend in well with the color of the soils in its native environment, which is primarily the scrub and desert regions of the southeastern part of Aruba.
Even though it’s not listed by the IUCN (partially because of a dispute among taxonomists about how to best classify it), the Aruba rattlesnake is at threat of extinction due to human encroachment and habitat loss. Researchers believe that there are fewer than 300 individual Aruba rattlesnakes left in the wild.
The Panamint rattlesnake (Crotalus stephensi) is a medium-sized pit viper that lives primarily in the southern and central parts of Nevada and in the Owens Valley/Payahǖǖnadǖ region near Death Valley. Its common name comes from that of the Panamint Range, which is one of the major mountain ranges in the northern Mojave Desert.
Like many other desert-dwelling serpents, the Panamint rattlesnake has a greyish-brown coloration that helps it blend in with the rocks and sand in its habitat. The Panamint primarily lives in rocky areas at higher elevations, but it ventures down into the lower elevations during the cooler months of the year.
The Panamint rattlesnake isn’t currently listed by the IUCN. However, this is because the Panamint rattlesnake was considered a subspecies of the speckled rattlesnake until 2007. More research is needed to fully understand its conservation status.
One of the most iconic species of the desert southwest, the Mojave rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) is a highly venomous serpent that lives in the greater Mojave Desert region.
Of all its characteristics, the Mojave rattlesnake is arguably best known for its highly potent venom. Its venom is actually a mix of both a hemotoxin and a neurotoxin, so it can cause a range of issues, such as respiratory failure and muscle weakness.
Thankfully, Mojave rattlesnake bites are not common and fatal bites are even rarer. Additionally, there is an antivenin called CroFab that’s highly effective against Mojave rattlesnake venom. Either way, it’s best to give these amazing rattlesnakes quite a bit of distance if you see one on the trail.
The red diamond rattlesnake (Crotalus ruber) is a large pit viper that lives exclusively on the Baja California Peninsula and the southernmost extent of the US state of California.
As its name suggests, the red diamond rattlesnake has a scale pattern that features large diamonds along its back. That said, it’s more brown than red in color, but it does have a distinctive black and white striped pattern on the base of its tail.
Red diamond rattlesnakes prefer to live in the chaparral environments that dominate much of Baja California. Although human encroachment and habitat loss are issues to the red diamond rattlesnake’s long-term well-being, the species is listed by the IUCN as being of least concern.
Found throughout the southern and central parts of the Baja California Peninsula, the Baja California rattlesnake (Crotalus enyo) is a small pit viper that mostly lives in desert environments.
Baja California rattlesnakes are mostly grey and light brown in color, but they have large brown scale patches along their backs. Although they share a range with a number of other rattlesnakes, including the red diamond rattler, the Baja California rattlesnake is fairly easy to distinguish using its coloration alone.
The IUCN lists the Baja California rattlesnake as a species of least concern with a stable population. However, its main threat is the expansion of agriculture, which is leading to habitat loss throughout its range.
The Great Basin rattlesnake (Crotalus lutosus) lives throughout its namesake Great Basin, which is a huge physiographic region that covers most of Nevada and parts of California, Utah, Arizona, and Idaho.
It has a brown to buff color with a row of brownish blotches down its backside. However, the Great Basin rattlesnake is not to be confused with the Great Basin gopher snake, which lives in the same region but is not venomous to humans.
The Great Basin rattlesnake is not listed by the IUCN, perhaps due to some debate over its taxonomic relationship to the Grand Canyon rattlesnake (Crotalus organus abysus), whose range is located nearby. However, it is protected at the state level in Utah alongside all other rattlesnakes.
Featuring a captivating coloration and a huge natural range, the massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus) is a medium-sized pit viper that lives throughout central North America. It’s primarily found in the south-central United States and northern Mexico, but it also lives in the eastern Midwest and in southern Ontario.
Most massasaugas boast a grayish-white body with large rounded blotches of black scales. However, researchers have recorded a number of melanistic massasaugas with an all-black body.
Due to its large range, the IUCN lists the massasauga as a species of least concern. However, it is endangered or threatened on the state and provincial level in the northern part of its range. The species’ primary threat is habitat loss, which is particularly prevalent in the high-population-density areas of the northeastern United States.
Last but not least, we have the pygmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius). As you can gather from its name, the pygmy rattlesnake is a particularly small pit viper. In fact, it rarely grows to be more than 24 inches (60 cm) long.
There are 3 recognized subspecies of the pygmy rattlesnake, all of which are endemic to the southeastern US. Most pygmy rattlesnakes live in forested environments, but they’re also just as at home in marshes and floodplains.
Although the pygmy rattlesnake has a highly toxic venom, its small size means that it rarely produces enough venom in a single bite to be fatal to humans. Nevertheless, anyone who gets bitten by a pygmy rattlesnake should seek out medical attention as soon as possible.