The Eastern Diamondback: Aggressive and Highly Venomous
Throughout the United States, there exists only a handful of snakes capable of inflicting serious harm (or death) on the human population at large. The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake is one of these snakes, and is widely recognized as one of the most dangerous and venomous reptiles in North America. This article examines the Eastern Diamondback through an analysis of its behavioral patterns, venom toxicity, and characteristics that make it unique. It is this author’s hope that a better, more-developed understanding (and appreciation) of this fascinating animal will accompany readers following their reading of this article.
Common Name: Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
Binomial Name: Crotalus adamanteus
Species: C. adamanteus
Synonyms: Crotalus adamanteus (Palisot de Beauvois, 1799); Crotalus rhombifer (Latreille and Sonnini, 1801); Crotalus rhombiferus (Brickell, 1805); Crotalus adamanteus var. adamanteus (Jan, 1858); C. adamantea (Cope, 1867); Crotalus adamanteus adamanteus (Cope, 1875); Crotalus adamanteus pleistofloridensis (Brattstrom, 1954); Crotalus giganteus (Brattstrom, 1954); Crotalus adamanteus (Klauber, 1956)
Also Known As: Common Rattlesnake; Diamond-Back; Florida Rattlesnake; Rattler; Southeastern Diamondback; Water Rattler; Water Rattlesnake; and Southern Woodland Rattler
Average Lifespan: 20+ Years
Conservation Status: “Least Concern” (IUCN)
Characteristics and Behavioral Traits of the Eastern Diamondback
The Crotalus adamanteus, commonly known as the “Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake,” is a species of highly venomous pit vipers from the Viperidae family. It is largely regarded as the heaviest (though not the longest) venomous snake endemic to the Americas, as well as the largest rattlesnake species known to currently exist. Currently, there are no known subspecies of the Eastern Diamondback; however, the snake is known to share numerous characteristics with other rattlesnake species, most notably, the Western Diamondback. Reaching maximum recorded lengths of 2.5 meters (approximately 8.5 feet), and weighing upwards of thirty-four pounds, the Eastern Diamondback is an incredibly massive snake, capable of holding its own against most animals.
Coloration and Appearance
The snake’s color pattern, like most rattlesnakes, is a mixture of brown, yellow, and grey dotted with black diamonds. Each of the diamonds are usually outlined with yellowish scales, and taper off at the tail. The snake’s underbelly, on the other hand, is often yellowish or cream-colored, while the head contains a dark stripe extending from the eyes down to its lips and mouth. Topping off its menacing appearance is its well-known rattle that sits at the end of its tail. The rattle can be heard from long distances, and is used as an intimidation device when the snake feels threatened.
Like most rattlesnake species, the Eastern Diamondback is terrestrial and spends most of its time hunting on the ground due to its poor climbing ability. It is also an excellent swimmer, and occasionally swims several miles offshore in search of food.
When cornered, the Eastern Diamondback is extremely aggressive and will stand its ground when threatened. To ward off potential predators (including humans), the snake is known to raise its anterior half of the body above ground in an S-shaped pattern. Doing so, gives the animal excellent striking range (upwards of a third of its body). While poised to strike, the Diamondback also begins to rattle its distinct tail. If these intimidation measures fail (and the snake is forced to engage) the Eastern Diamondback is known to strike multiple times, delivering tremendous amounts of its potent venom within seconds before slithering away into cover.
Threat to Humans
Although typically viewed as aggressive and extremely deadly, it is generally accepted by researchers that the Eastern Diamondback tries to avoid human contact whenever possible. In fact, all recorded bites from this species have derived from defensive measures undertaken by the snake; never for attack or open-aggression. When bites do occur, it is estimated that nearly a third of bite victims result from individuals taunting, harassing, or attempting to kill the snake.
As with all venomous snake species, however, individuals should exercise extreme caution around the Eastern Diamondback. This includes maintaining a safe distance from the animal, and actively listening for the snake’s rattle-like tail to sound when too close. Wearing protective boots and closely watching your step is also recommended for individuals venturing into known Eastern Diamondback territory. Failure to do so can result in life-threatening emergencies or fatalities.
Eastern Diamondback's Habitat
The Eastern Diamondback is found primarily in the Southeastern United States, all the way from North Carolina to the coastal plain areas of Florida. It is also found throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The Eastern Diamondback is commonly found in the region’s dry pine forests, as well as palmetto flatwoods, sandhills, marshes, swamps, maritime hammocks, and wet prairies (particularly during dry periods in the summer months). After basking during the early morning and afternoon hours, the snake is known to use gopher and tortoise burrows as shelter from the mid-day heat, but occasionally takes shelter in bushes, trees, and large rocks for extra protection from the elements (or to ambush potential prey).
Prey and Natural Predators of the Eastern Diamondback
Due to the Eastern Diamondback’s large size, the snake is able to hunt a large variety of animals across the Southeastern United States. This includes rabbits (primarily Marsh Rabbits and the Eastern Cottontail), rats, birds (such as quail, towhees, and young wild turkeys), mice, lizards, squirrels, and the occasional insect. Using scent trails and infrared waves given off by warm-blooded animals, the snake is able to locate nearly any prey with ease.
As an ambush predator, the Eastern Diamondback often uses cover to strike at its prey silently; rapidly injecting its victims with venom, and following the animal’s scent until it dies (where it is then consumed quickly). Ambushing is made easy by the animal’s remarkable striking distance. With the ability to strike nearly two-thirds of its body length (an average of 4-feet or more for the majority of rattlesnakes), the Eastern Diamondback is capable of subduing the fastest of prey with ease.
Hunting habits for this species vary by season (due to the substantial changes in outdoor temperatures). For example, the Diamondback often does most of its hunting during the daylight hours in the winter, but is known to restrict its hunting to evening hours during the summer months.
Natural predators of the Eastern Diamondback are few and far between due to the snake’s remarkable size and potent venom. However, a large variety of birds, including hawks and various eagles have been known to prey on smaller rattlesnake specimens. Other snakes have also been observed preying upon juvenile rattlesnakes; most notably, the Kingsnake. Other animals, such as wild hogs and gray foxes have also been known to attack juvenile rattlesnakes; though, this is less common and rarely recorded.
Eastern Diamondbacks, like all rattlesnake species, are ovoviviparous, with a gestational period of six to seven months. The average brood size of the animal is approximately a dozen snakes, but can reach numbers as high as twenty-one. The Eastern Diamondback typically gives birth to its young between July and October. Its babies are nearly a foot in length at birth, and maintain a strong similarity to the adults in appearances. The only exception is that babies are born with a small button for their rattle, which grows in length over time. Despite their small size, babies are just as dangerous as the adults, and are capable of inflicting serious damage to individuals with a single bite. This is due, in part, to their inability to control their venom output when biting.
Unlike other snakes, the Diamondback has a slow growth rate with juveniles taking several years to reach full maturity. Reproductive habits are also irregular, with females waiting to mate every 2 to 3 years on average. This slow pattern is problematic for this species as over-hunting (or indiscriminate killing) could potentially cause population numbers to dwindle rapidly.
Eastern Diamondback's Venom
As one of the most dangerous snakes in North America, the Eastern Diamondback is well known for its potent venom, and has a mortality rate of nearly thirty-percent. With its large fangs (measuring as long as 1 inch each), the snake is capable of injecting is prey with large amounts of venom with only one bite. The rattlesnake’s venom contains both a thrombin-like enzyme known as crotalase, as well as low-molecular-weight peptides that result in heavy bleeding and impede neuromuscular activity. Diamondback venom also contains potent hemotoxins that are known to kill red blood cells and destroy tissue. Although venom yields vary by snake (depending on its size and weight), average yield for a 5-foot specimen is approximately 400 to 450 milligrams. Larger specimens in the realm of 8-feet or larger can inject upwards of 1,000 milligrams with a single bite. With lethal doses for humans averaging 100 to 150 milligrams, a single bite should be considering a life-threatening event.
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake Bite Symptoms and Treatment
Bites from an Eastern Diamondback are often described as extremely painful due to the numerous toxins that begin to take effect immediately on the victim’s body. Symptoms of an Eastern Diamondback bite include hemorrhaging, severe pain, hypotension (low blood pressure), bleeding from the mouth, swelling, and eventually cardiac arrest (in cases of severe envenomation). Necrosis and weak pulse are also common symptoms, and are generally indicative of severe bites.
Although antivenoms have been developed to combat the effects of the snake’s venom (including ACP and CroFab), rapid medical treatment and hospitalization is necessary to prevent long-term complications and potential death. Massive doses of antivenom are occasionally needed for severe cases, along with long-term hospitalization to monitor vital signs. Recovery can take several weeks (or months) depending on the severity of the bite, with long-term damage to the affected skin and the body’s vital organs common.
"A rattlesnake loose in the living room tends to end all discussion of animal rights."— Lance Morrow
Currently, the Easter Diamondback species is listed as “Least Concerned” by the IUCN due to its widespread population. However, in areas such as North Carolina, the snake is protected by state law and is considered endangered due to declining populations within the area. Currently, there are no federal laws in place to protect the Diamondback from over-hunting.
Despite their population showing relatively stable numbers for the time being, researchers worry that indiscriminate killing by humans (due to the snake’s fearsome reputation) will become problematic in the years to come. Loss of habitat and hunting (for its fine skin and prized rattles) are also expected to harm the rattlesnake populations as well. In more recent years, events known as “Rattlesnake Roundups” have also become widespread in the Southeast (particularly in Georgia and Alabama). Researchers at the University of Georgia fear that roundups will become “ecologically disastrous” for the rattlesnake populations as these festivities continue to grow larger and larger each year. This is particularly problematic for the Eastern Diamondback due to its remarkably slow growth and reproductive rates.
In closing, the Eastern Diamondback is one of the most fascinating snakes in the world due to its unique characteristics, and unparalleled size in North America. Despite competition with other rattlesnake species in the Americas, the Eastern Diamondback’s reputation as a fierce and highly venomous snake is well-deserved given its relatively aggressive behavior, painful bite, and highly potent venom. Without a shadow of a doubt, the Eastern Diamondback is a snake to be reckoned with and can hold its own against nearly any threat. While beautiful, it should always be respected, and left alone in the wild.
While much is known about the Eastern Diamondback and its behavioral patterns, there is still a lot to be learned about this extraordinary creature. As more and more research is conducted by scientists, it will be interesting to see what new information can be learned about this one of a kind animal in the years and decades that lie ahead.
“Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus Adamanteus.” Species Profile: Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. SREL Herpetology. Accessed January 15, 2020.
Slawson, Larry. "The 10 Most Dangerous Snakes in the United States and Canada." Owlcation. 2019.
Slawson, Larry. "The Top 10 Deadliest and Most Dangerous Snakes in the World." Owlcation. 2019.
© 2020 Larry Slawson