September 30, 2022
The Nation & World page of my local newspaper carried a USA Today article about a white rattlesnake on display at the Natural Science Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. This is one of the rarest rattlesnakes most people will ever see. Jamie Merrill, conservation associate biologist with the museum, said the snake has a genetic condition called T-positive, which is a reduction of pigment and not a total loss of pigment. He is off-white with tan chevrons. T-negative would be a total loss of pigment, which is a little rarer than T-negatives. Herpetologist Terry Vandeventer of Jackson said the fact this rattlesnake survived to adulthood is so rare it cannot be calculated. One out of several thousand timber rattlesnakes are born T-positive. The odds of a normal juvenile rattllesnake living to adulthood in the wild are already low, but a T-positive snake not having camouflage to protect it from predators make the odds of survival considerably lower. This snake survived to adulthood, was captured, and was relocated to the museum where it is now on display.
When I looked online, I found the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), also called the canebrake rattlesnake or banded rattlesnake, is a species of pit viper widespread throughout eastern North America. All pit vipers are venomous, but this species can be highly venomous. The timber is the only rattlesnake species in the heavily populated Northeastern US and is second only to only the prairie rattlesnake as the most northerly distributed venomous snake in North America. Adults usually grow to the length of 36 to 60 inches (91 to 152 cm), with most adults measuring less than 45 inches (115 cm) in length and weighing between 1.1 and 3.3 pounds (500 and 1,500 g), and often towards the lower end of the range. The maximum reported length is 74.5 inches (189.2 cm) and large specimens can reportedly weigh as much as 10 pounds (4.5 kg). The back (dorsal) of the rattlesnake has a pattern of dark brown or black crossbands on a yellowish-brown or grayish background while the underbelly (ventral) is yellowish and either uniform or marked with black.
The white rattlesnake was discovered by Danielle Ladner of Yazoo County Mississippi as she was gathering muscadines (wild grapes) to make jelly. She was about to leave and bent over to pick some of the muscadines she’d gathered and realized the snake was 2 feet (30 cm) from her face. Ladner initially screamed and ran away, but she went back and photographed it. After sharing the photos with a herpetologist, she realized the snake was a rarity and called the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. Personnel from the agency captured the snake and took it to the museum. The snake went into a reptile form of hibernation (brumation) where it did not eat for several months. Once it began eating regularly, he was placed on display. Ladner took her children to the museum to see the rattlesnake. “We were excited. I felt like he’d put on a good bit of weight. He looked really good and healthy. I’m not a snake person and never have been, but he’s a special snake. I’m glad he’s safe and everybody can come see him.”
THOUGHTS: When I directed the camp in Kansas, we had areas of timber and tall grass conducive to snakes and their prey. Guests would often tell me about snakes they saw and expect me to “do something”. When I researched, I found the area of Kansas where we were was unique in there were no venomous snakes in the county. While different species of rattlesnakes and copperheads are common on the Kansas prairie, their range does not tend to overlap, and we sat right in the middle. The rat snakes and black snakes that were reported may have looked ominous but were beneficial pest control. I recall one old-timer telling me, “You don’t need a cat. You’re better off with a black snake in the corn crib.” I made a pamphlet on venomous snakes in Kansas to ease their fears. Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.