Myths, lies, and old wives’ tales loom large in the outdoor pursuits. Here at MeatEater, we’re dedicated to separating facts from bullsh*t, so we created this series to examine suspect yarns. If there’s a belief, rumor, or long-held assumption you’d like us to fact check, drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Young rattlesnakes have the worst bites because they can’t control the amount of venom they inject. Adult rattlesnakes, on the other hand, have the foresight to leave something in their reserve for later. After all, a wise rattler knows that no venom now means no food later.
The origins of this theory are unclear, but it’s a widespread belief. MeatEater editors from California, to South Dakota, to Pennsylvania said this is an accepted rule in their region. Maybe the same folks who started the rumor that daddy longlegs are venomous came up with this one, too.
Both young and old rattlesnakes can control the amount of venom they throw in a given strike, and studies show that age isn’t an indicator for probability of a “dry” bite. This means that a 1-foot rattlesnake is just as likely as a 5-foot rattlesnake to deliver a bite with no venom.
Even if a baby rattler gives everything it has, there isn’t much for it to give. “Bigger snakes have much bigger venom sacs, and adults can deliver far greater volumes of venom than babies, even if they only inject a small percentage of the total volume available,” said Greg Pauly, a herpetologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, in an interview with Bay Nature magazine.
As far as claims that young rattlers have more potent venom, there’s a bit of truth to that. Rattlesnake venom contains over 100 different active components, and the makeup of a specific snake’s venom is determined by age, diet, geographic location, how long ago the snake ate, and other factors. While experts believe that younger snakes tend to have quicker acting venom, it’s not enough to outweigh their small supplies.
“It could be argued that the drop-for-drop potency of baby rattlesnake venom is greater, but here is where the issue of venom quantity comes into play,” according to an Animal Behaviour study. “An adult rattlesnake produces, stores, and injects anywhere from 20-50x more venom than a baby.”
“There is a significant body of compelling research indicating that the size of the rattlesnake, and therefore the quantity of venom injected, is the most important determining factor of the severity of an envenomation,” the Animal Behaviour study reads. “Bigger snakes tend to cause worse envenomations.”