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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: Rattled on the Trail

Few sounds in nature are as instantly recognizable and terrifying as the sudden rattle of a pit viper. No matter how often you’ve heard it, it’s a sound that sends a jolt of adrenaline and raises the hair on the back of the neck.

But look closely, because maybe what you’re hearing isn’t a rattlesnake at all.

It might instead be a close mimic, a gopher snake. With their speckled, earth-tone appearance, these common snakes look something like rattlesnakes, but they aren’t dangerous. In fact, they are highly beneficial and eat large numbers of rodents.

Lacking venom, a gopher snake has no real defense against predators. If cornered, it attempts to dissuade an intruder by flattening its head into a triangular rattlesnake-like shape, hissing very loudly, and rattling its tail in great agitation.

If a gopher snake is on dry leaves, its vibrating tail can sound like that of a rattlesnake, and the overall effect is enough to make any animal jump back in fright. That’s especially true when the snake is big—and gopher snakes can exceed six feet in length.

The gopher snake’s display may scare away predators and help protect the snake. But just as a rattlesnake may not benefit by drawing attention to itself, gopher snakes often suffer from their habit: people sometimes react by killing the gopher snake without bothering to confirm that it is not a rattlesnake.

So if you hear that familiar rattle on a trail—take a moment to look around. It might not be who you think it is.

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