Description: The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is the largest of the 32 species of rattlesnake currently recognized. They are large, heavy-bodied snakes with large, broad heads with two light lines on the face. Adults are usually 33-72 in (84-183 cm) long, but the largest individual on record was 96 in (244 cm). Mature snakes can tip the scales at over 10 lbs. The background color is brown, tan, or yellowish and covered with the namesake diamonds, which are brown and surrounded by lighter scales. Males are larger than females.
Range and Habitat: Diamondback rattlesnakes are restricted to the Lower Coastal Plain of the Southeast, from southern North Carolina to eastern Louisiana, although the stronghold of their range is in Florida and southern Georgia. This species usually inhabits dry sandy areas, palmetto or wiregrass flatwoods, pinewoods, coastal dune habitats, or hardwood hammocks. They generally avoid wet areas but sometimes live along the edges of swamps. They are accomplished swimmers and even travel through saltwater to and from barrier islands. In many locations this species relies heavily on gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) burrows during winter months.
Habits: Like most large pitvipers eastern diamondbacks spend most of their time coiled in palmetto thickets or other thick vegetation to ambush prey. Most movement between locations occurs during the day, and is mostly restricted to the morning and evening in summer. Diamondbacks spend the winter in stump holes or tortoise burrows but may emerge on warm winter days to bask. This species feeds almost exclusively on mammals, particularly rabbits. Mating occurs in the spring and fall and females give birth to 12 – 24 young in the late summer. Diamondbacks grow slowly, taking several years to reach maturity, and adult females only reproduce every 2-3 years.
Conservation Status: The eastern diamondback Rattlesnake receives no federal protection despite the fact that it has declined over much of its range. This species is protected in North Carolina , where it is likely extirpated (none have been seen in NC since the early 1990s). Rattlesnake roundups take place in Alabama and Georgia. Whigham and Claxton, Georgia, hold roundups every year but capture fewer and fewer snakes through time. Roundups have been considered to be ecologically disastrous by some conservation biologists because of certain harmful capture methods (such as pouring gasoline down burrows) and because of the attitude created by a festival atmosphere during which wildlife is destroyed. The emphasis on some snake roundups has shifted to greater environmental awareness and a change in focus from collecting rattlesnakes to other activities. Habitat destruction, wanton killing, and highway mortality are also take their toll on this slow moving and slow to reproduce reptile.
Speake, D. W., and R. H. Mount. 1973. Some possible ecological effects of "Rattlesnake Roundups" in the southeastern Coastal Plain. Proc. 27th Ann. Conf. S. E. Assoc. Game Fish Comm. 1973:267-277.
Account Author: Matthew King, University of Georgia – edited by J.D. Willson