By Ethan Hatchett

There is one sound that hikers, hunters and others outdoors in south Georgia dread the most. The sound is almost insect-like or metallic, and it has the power to stop even the most adventurous in their tracks.

It’s the sound of a rattlesnake.

In Georgia, the eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake is a declining and not always welcomed resident of the Coastal Plain and on barrier islands. This versatile reptile can be found anywhere from palmetto flatwoods to coastal dune habitats.

The eastern diamond-backed, which once ranged from North Carolina to Louisiana, is Georgia’s largest venomous snake species and the world’s largest rattler. And it’s easy to see why. Adults stretch 3-6 feet long and the largest diamondback on record reached 8 feet. Older snakes can weigh over 10 pounds, dwarfing other snakes of relative length.

Diamondbacks are usually solitary creatures. Their iconic rattle is used as a bluff to frighten predators. These snakes will also puff themselves up to intimidate any that disturb them. Striking is a response of last resort. Like other rattlers, diamondbacks prefer to slither away from confrontation.

Coiled eastern diamond-backed (Linda May/ DNR)

They hunt by lying in wait in thick vegetation or patrolling an area for prey. When striking, they inject prey with their potent venom and then release the animal. Later, the snake follows the scent trail left by the dying creature.

Prey consists of small mammals such as rabbits and squirrels, birds including wrens and towhees, and other small animals unlucky enough to wander by. Because of the diamondback’s strength and size, it has been documented eating even larger animals, such as young turkeys.

When not hunting, eastern diamond-backed rattlers spend most of their time hiding in thick brush and occasionally venturing out to bask in the sun. Like all reptiles, they are cold-blooded and rely on the sun to provide their body heat. During the colder winter months, diamondbacks take refuge in holes, gopher tortoise burrows and tree stumps, emerging only on warmer days.

The snakes breed in the spring and fall. Gravid females give birth to about 12-24 young in late summer. Diamondbacks grow slowly, taking years to fully mature. Adult females can reproduce only every two to three years. Yet they can store a male’s sperm for up to five years before using it to reproduce.

The species has declined in Georgia and across its range. Coupled with the snake’s slow reproduction rate, habitat destruction, arbitrary killing and road kills are key factors. Historically, rattlesnake roundups, in which diamondbacks and other rattlesnake species were hunted, caught and killed, also helped decimate populations, while erroneously hyping these native snakes as dangerous and unnecessary.

Although not protected in Georgia, the eastern diamond-backed is being reviewed rangewide for possible federal listing under the Endangered Species Act. The snake also is a high-priority species for conservation in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan. This comprehensive, statewide conservation strategy, which is undergoing a periodic revision, lists 640 native animal and plant species as priorities for conserving. The 150 conservation actions recommended in the plan focus restoration and protection efforts where they’re most needed and most effective.

Another encouraging change for diamondbacks is that Georgia’s two remaining rattlesnake festivals – held last month in Claxton and Whigham – have become no-kill events, meaning no rattlers are caught and killed. Instead, the festivals offer the public a chance to safely engage with these fascinating reptiles and learn about the important roles they fill in nature.

DNR biologist Thomas Floyd shows an eastern indigo snake, a rare species whose prey includes the eastern diamond-backed, at the Claxton Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival. (Jon Ambrose/DNR)

It’s also worth noting that the once widespread practice of hunting rattlers by dripping gasoline or blowing gas fumes into gopher tortoise burrows to drive the snakes to the surface has long been outlawed in Georgia. With the changes in the festivals that illegal practice is even less likely to be used, which is good for rattlers and other animals that take refuge in tortoise burrows, including the federally listed eastern indigo snake.

With the next revision of the Wildlife Action Plan in the works, conservation partners will again be critical to updating this strategy and putting its recommendations into practice.

In the meantime, if you spot an eastern diamond-backed somewhere other than a rattlesnake festival, the conservation nonprofit Orianne Society would like to know about it.

Why diamond-backed?

The Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles is the largest international herpetological society and houses a robust database of North American reptiles and amphibians. Along with important taxonomic information, this organization keeps track of common names for species.

But common names can be tricky. For example, the eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake is sometimes called eastern diamondback or even eastern diamond-back. This species profile sides with the society, whose work to standardize common names helps all of us communicate about wildlife.

Top: eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake (Matt Healea/DNR)

Ethan Hatchett is a communications assistant in DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section