Of rattlers we have no less than sixteen species, but only two of them, the massasauga and the banded or timber rattlesnake, are found in the eastern and central states. The little prairie rattlesnake, which is not very dangerous, is abundant on the plains west of the Missouri River. The great diamond rattlesnake of the South, which sometimes grows to a length of nearly nine feet, is the most formidable member of this group. The small ground rattlesnake of the southern states is aggressive, and gives only a faint warning, and on this account is more dreaded by the negroes than the larger species; but its bite is seldom fatal to grown people. The other species are confined to the Southwest and the Pacific coast.
Rattlesnakes are easily identified by their rattles. These generally last only long enough to become 8 or 10 jointed. Rattles with as many as 15 to 18 joints are quite rare. The number of rattles does hot indicate the snake's age. Their office is not clearly understand. Doctor Stejneger says: "They are a substitute for a voice".
When a rattlesnake sees a man approaching, it generally lies quiet to escape observation, so long as it thinks itself concealed. It seldom strikes unless provoked. If alarmed when it is wide-awake, it nearly always springs its rattle before striking, the sound being very similar to that made by our common "locust" or cicada. If the reptile is trodden on when asleep, it strikes like lightning, and does its rattling afterward. Unfortunately for us, the poisonous snakes do their sleeping in the day time and hunt at night. They are prone to seek the warmth of bed-clothes, and sometimes will coil up alongside of a sleeping man. Mosquito netting is an effective bar against snakes. Snakes despise musk, tobacco, and turpentine.
A snake is not obliged to coil before striking, but can strike from any position; it will coil first, however, unless attacked very suddenly or taken at a disadvantage. A snake does not intentionally throw its venom; but, if it misses its mark, the act of hissing may throw the poison several feet. The blow is delivered with lightning rapidity, and the fangs are instantly sunk into the victim. No snake can leap entirely from the ground, nor can it strike more than two-thirds its own length, unless it har. the advantage of striking downhill or from somt purchase on a rock or bush. A snake does not expend all its venom at one blow. It is not rendered permanently harmless by extracting its fangs, for auxiliary ones, in various stages of development, lie in a sac in the roof of the mouth, and the foremost of these soon will emerge and be ready for business.
The venoms of different species of snakes differ in composition and in action. That of the cobra, for example, attacks the nerve centers of the cerebrospinal system, causing paralysis that extends to the lungs and finally to the heart, but the local symptoms are not very severe. In marked contrast are the effects of rattlesnake bite, which spread very rapidly through the system, making the blood thin and destroying its power to clot. The wound it speedily discolored and swollen. Within about fifteen minutes, if no cautery or ligature or serum injection has been applied, the victim becomes dull and languid, breathing with difficulty. The venom first enfeebles the heart, then the lungs. Great swelling and discoloration extend up the limbs and trunk. The temperature rises, the victim staggers, becomes prostrated, is attacked with cold sweats and vomiting, may swoon repeatedly, and death may ensue within ten or twelve hours. If an important blood vessel has been pierced by a fang and considerable venom injected, the victim may die within twenty minutes.
Rattlesnake poison has a tendency to rot the bloodvessels, and may cause a general seepage of blood throughout the system. In some cases a whole limb is soaked to the bone with decomposed blood. Frequently there is suppuration, and gangrene may set in, from wmich a patient who had recovered from the constitutional symptoms may die a week or more after the injury was received.
Much depends upon the part struck, and the quam tity of venom injected. Often it happens that only one fang penetrates, or only the surface of the skin may be scratched. Bites on the bare skin are more dangerous than those received through the clothing. In a large majority of cases the wound does not touch a blood-vessel directly, and the patient will recover with no other treatment than a ligature promptly applied, and a free cutting and kneading of the wound to expel as much as possible of the poison before it has had time to enter the circulation. Such measures, however, must be taken at once, as absorption works quickly.