Crotalus molossus

Black-tailed rattlesnake
Bud Russo


I’m Crotalus molossus — An Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks Regular


It was cold this morning when I awoke in our Organ Mountain den, snuggling with my cousins and friends. A bunch of us decided to bunk together this winter, just to keep warm. I like it here in the mountains, although some of my cousins prefer Arizona, West Texas, and Mexico, all the way to Oaxaca.


Humans sometimes call others cold-blooded killers. Apparently, they don’t really know the meaning of cold-blooded. I can’t generate internal heat so I depend on the temperature of the air and ground to maintain my body heat. That’s what cold-blooded really means. I am, however, a killer. Actually, I’m a hunter. I eat mice, lizards, birds, and other small animals. But I have to catch them first. And that’s no easy task.


I guess that’s why Mother Nature painted me this way — a rather striking pattern of hexagonal blotches and cross-bands along my back with straps trailing to my belly — ranging in color from yellow and olive green to brown and black. My color tends toward the more flamboyant. I prefer the yellow and olive green. I also have a mask — a black band from my snout across my eyes to the corners of my mouth. It’s really cool, sort of a superhero look.


But you don’t seem to care about my color or design, despite the effort it took to accomplish. All you see is my black tail. Thus, my name — black-tailed rattlesnake.


Now, I’ll bet that put the fear of God in a bunch of you. Rattlesnake! Dangerous! Deadly! Don’t go getting your undies in a bundle. I’m a laid-back guy. Pretty docile, really. I prefer to remain quiet, unobtrusive, maybe even quiescent. At least, when I’m not hunting.


But, remember, I am a carnivorous snake and not very big. I’m about a yard long. I have a cousin who’s nearly 50 inches long, but he’s exceptional. Most of us are medium size, except our females. They tend to be larger — probably because of their extra duty of bearing our young.


They do that, you know. They emit these pheromones in spring. Drives me crazy so I’ll seek her out and mate with her — sometimes for hours. Sometimes for days. I tap my chin along her spine and flick my tongue on her skin. If she likes that, she lets me mate with her. I hang around afterwards to keep other black-tails from horning in on my territory.


Our babies — as many as a dozen — grow inside her, just like you mammals, and they are born live in summer and anxious to get on with the business of eating and mating. So within hours, they slither away. Of course, they don’t have much experience and don’t realize how vulnerable they are to our enemies — eagles, hawks, bobcats, coyotes, people like you, and even our meanest enemy — western diamondback rattlers. Maybe that’s why we like to remain quiet. If we don’t move, we don’t attract attention.


In winter, we’re pretty much inactive. Too cold. My best time is spring and fall. I’m out all day — and all night, if I’m hunting. Summer here in New Mexico is pretty hot. I don’t have to tell you. I can’t take the heat, so I’m active only at night then.


If you see me, you’ll probably watch me move. It takes some practice to slither along in a straight line when you have to employ horizontal waves. I don’t have feet, you see. Sometimes I use a sidewinding locomotion. Depends on the terrain. I’m an expert swimmer, and I can easily slither up a six-foot tree.


In good times, I grow pretty rapidly, and my skin wears out quickly. A few times a year, a new one forms under the old, which splits, and I have to scrape it off. Each time I grow a new skin, I also grow a new rattle. It’s made of keratin — the same stuff your fingernails are made of. And it’s pretty fragile. If I’m not careful, I can break off a part.


But it still works. Get too close to me, and I’ll give it a quick shake. I can tell you’re there because nerves on my belly scales sense ground vibrations that tell me. If that doesn’t alert you, you’ll hear me hiss and, if all else fails, I’ll puff up my body. I want to look as big as possible. Last resort? I’ll bite you, but mostly I just want to slither away to some obscure place.


I’m what you call a pit viper. I have these sensory pits on either side of my nose so I can detect infrared heat — yours or the animal I’m hunting. I have two venom glands, larger than most other rattlesnakes. That’s because my venom is not as toxic and usually not fatal to humans. You call the venom hemotoxic, meaning it has enzymes and proteins that destroy red blood cells and cause organ degeneration. Beneficially, it aids digestion.


But because it’s not as toxic, I have to inject a lot more for it to be effective. I do, after all, have to eat, and it’s my only weapon. Once I’ve disabled my prey, I open my mouth — it’s pretty big — and use my muscles to ingest the critter whole.


In the larger scheme of things, I’m pretty well off. On Threatened Species lists, I’m considered as Least Concern, meaning there are enough of us around and our population is stable.


We are threatened by people like you, our unnatural enemy. While we provide an ecological benefit of keeping rodents under control, we are also guilty of biting and killing some livestock and pets — and occasionally biting a human. That’s something you want to prevent, so you hunt and kill us. Fear plays a big part in that but, as usual, that’s irrational. Rattlesnakes bite only about a thousand people a year and only about 30 die. Put that into perspective. About 40,000 people died in car wrecks last year.


Think about that when you’re hiking the Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks National Monument … And just watch where you put your feet.




Bud Russo is a Las Cruces journalist and storyteller. His work includes a decade of travel articles about New Mexico, three self-published novels, and his non-fiction book, Heroes and Villains of New Mexico: A Collection of True Stories. He is a 1966 graduate of NMSU, with a BS in journalism and political science, and an MLA degree from Johns Hopkins University.