“DON’T go wandering around in Prairie coulees!” I thought this would have made a better headline for the feature story in Canadian Geographic's June/July 1986 issue. Instead, it’s titled: “Rattlesnakes! All they ask is a little respect.” Which is true, they do deserve respect. But this story did initially have me envisioning the dry gulches and hillsides of southern Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan carpeted with coiled venomous reptiles.
They’re not, of course. The Prairie rattlesnake is listed as a species of special concern by Canada’s Species At Risk Public Registry, and has been suffering declines due to human land-use practices since the 1930s. Author Malcolm Stark — a herpetologist who for years had studied the snakes on the landscape south of Lethbridge, Alta. — digs into their ongoing demise and humankind’s “innate and abiding fear” of rattlers, but also the species’ flabbergasting physiology.
Now, I’m not afraid of snakes. But Stark’s great fervour for the rattling variety translates into some pretty lurid descriptions of the snakes’ death-strikes, which were alone enough to dial up my healthy innate fear of poison and excruciating pain:
When a rattlesnake "strikes," the head lunges forward at speeds too rapid for the human eye to follow.
Rattlesnake fangs are hollow and act as dual hypodermic syringes … [with] a pronounced curve which aids penetration (somewhat like a surgeon’s suturing needle).
Because the venom is injected deeply, there is no need to hold onto a struggling victim.
Ugh. But, insists Stark, “Prairie rattlesnakes are not usually aggressive, striking only when hunting or disturbed.” In fact, he goes so far as to say that you can think of them as “chivalrous snakes,” because they shake their distinct warning maraca (not his words) when you get too close. Case in point: as a toddler, the landowner where Stark conducted his study once tottered off alone into “Rattlesnake Coulee” for four hours and was recovered venom-free. Reassuring!
Truth be told, Prairie rattlesnakes are potentially valuable to have around (their appetite for rodents can save grain farmers thousands of dollars each growing season). And they’re just one of many struggling Prairie species increasingly in need of more accurate distribution data and better conservation measures. “Nature equipped the rattler with an effective weapon — its poisonous strike,” says Stark. “But in the end, that weapon is useless against man and his practices.”