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September 29, 2010

Giant rattlesnake found in South Carolina…not!

The internet and email have opened up countless opportunities for scams and pranks of all sorts and made the life of resident S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) herpetologist Steve Bennett very interesting. At least once a month he is forwarded email containing a picture of a giant rattlesnake, supposedly killed in South Carolina, with the inevitable question, "Steve, could this be true?" And most of the time the answer is "no" for a number of reasons, but the picture can look convincing.

An eastern diamondback rattlesnake in a digital photograph may appear to be a 12 footer that weighs 150 pounds, or merely a 10 footer that weighs 100 pounds, but the answer is neither. An averageEastern diamond email pic rattlesnake in South Carolina is a little over five feet in length. There are no 10, 12 or 15 foot rattlesnakes in South Carolina. The largest eastern diamondback rattlesnake ever recorded, from south Georgia, was 8 feet long and an 8 foot long rattlesnake would be a monster!

First, most of the rattlesnakes in email pictures making the rounds are large rattlesnakes, meaning they could be six feet, or slightly greater in length. In south Florida, where eastern diamondbacks can remain on the surface and feed throughout the year they can achieve greater lengths than in South Carolina. Even in south Georgia and northern Florida this species tends to grow larger, due likely to the longer "growing" season. So it's likely these giants were originally killed somewhere other than South Carolina.

"But they look huge in the picture!" Yes they do and it's obvious the folks taking these pictures learned a lot about photography from fishermen. If you catch a nice, big striped or largemouth bass you would never have your picture taken while holding it close to your body. Every fisherman knows to hold the fish out as far as your arms will extend (let perspective be your friend) to make your big fish look even bigger. Every "giant rattlesnake" picture shows a person holding a dead rattlesnake on a hook as far away from his body as possible, because it's all about perspective.

There is also the weight issue. Bennett has been working with eastern diamondback rattlesnakes at a DNR site for the past 16 years. The largest rattlesnake he has ever caught there was a female, who was fat and gravid or distended with eggs, that measured  65 inches or about five and a half feet in length. This immense female rattlesnake weighed 14 pounds, which is nowhere near the 100-150 pounds reported in the prank emails. There are no 100 pound rattlesnakes in South Carolina, or even 50 pounders, anywhere.

The eastern diamondback rattlesnake is a species of the lower coast in South Carolina and is seldom found more than 60 miles inland from the coast. The eastern diamondback is still somewhat common in appropriate habitat throughout the southern portion of the state, primarily in Jasper, Hampton and Beaufort counties. It is uncommon throughout the rest of its range in the state. So, when the email says the rattlesnake, especially an eastern diamondback, was killed around Columbia, Greenville, Spartanburg or other inland cities, then it's just not true.

The eastern diamondback's cousin, the timber (or canebrake) rattlesnake is still fairly common throughout the state, primarily in the coastal plain, but it doesn't get quite as large as the eastern diamondback, which may be why Bennett doesn't see as many "giant" timber rattlesnakes in emails.

Quite a few of these emails, claiming to be giant rattlesnakes killed in South Carolina, are rattlesnakes from "way out west" or at least Texas. The western diamondback rattlesnake, which doesn't get quite as big as its eastern cousin, is a very common species in the southwest and shows up frequently in the giant snake emails. If you see a diamondback-looking rattlesnake in one of these emails and it has very distinct black and white bands on the end of its tail, just before the rattle, then you can be sure it was not killed in South Carolina.

So the next time someone forwards you a picture of a giant rattlesnake killed in South Carolina remember that it might be a large snake, but it's not 15 feet long and it doesn't weigh 100 pounds and it might not even be a native South Carolina species.

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