CODY, Wyo. — When you're bitten by a rattlesnake, immediately call for help and seek medical services.
"Get to the hospital as quickly as you can," rattlesnake specialist Philip McClinton says.
Just as important, stay calm.
"Don't panic," he advises.
By keeping their heartbeats slow, victims can reduce the spread of the venom. And don't try to suck out the venom, because you can't, McClinton adds. On the other hand, those who spy a rattler from a secure spot can seize a great opportunity.
"If you're fortunate enough to see one, enjoy it like you'd enjoy watching a bear or birds — from a safe distance," he says.
The assistant curator at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center's Draper Museum of Natural History, McClinton shares advice about living with prairie or Western rattlesnakes along with their science. While he likes all snakes, rattlesnakes are his favorite.
"They have a beauty of their own," says McClinton, who acknowledges that his view is not widely held. "Most people think rattlesnakes are a killing machine. They're not."
Rattlesnakes carry a bad reputation as "the iconic bad guy of the West," but they pose less of a threat than lightning or vehicles. They're responsible for only 2-4 deaths per year, thanks in part to new medicine. Still, he adds, "they're not to be taken lightly. They defend themselves vigorously."
Since they can be anywhere, in and out of town and up to 8,500 feet, McClinton advises people to take care about where they put their hands and feet.
"I always watch," he notes.
When startled, rattlesnakes become fearful and remain so for a while, so it's best not to crowd them, to stay still or slowly back away, he says. They depend on their camouflage and don't like to be awakened.
"They don't want to waste their venom on something they can't eat," he adds.
They're not eating most of the year, when temperatures drop below 60-65 degrees and they migrate into a den where they become inactive, McClinton says. However, if they're in a warm microclimate among rocks, "they can be out on a relatively cool day," he says.
Also unexpected is the fact that they can share winter underground with other animals_prairie dogs, insects, rabbits, other snakes and reptiles for example.
"They den with everything," McClinton says.
Consequently when a den is gassed, more than snakes are killed, and the poison rends the space permanently toxic and unusable forever. Further, the mass killing leads to a "false sense of security," McClinton adds, since the loss of adults means more food for the surviving snakes and an increase in reproduction.
Baby rattlers emerge in an embryonic sac that they break with a tooth grown solely for that purpose. It drops off afterward.
"They're ready to bite you the day they're born," McClinton says.
Because their skin doesn't expand and grow as they do, rattlers must shed. The process involves a milky fluid that they exude between their old and new skins.
"They lose every scale, including the eye cover, when they shed," he says. In mid-shed their eyes cloud over making them "touchier" because they can't distinguish threats from non-threats.
They use sensors between their eyes and nostrils to sense warmth and to locate prey. Lacking external ears, they sense ground vibrations through their lower jaw and body. Their ability to smell comes through their tongues that they flick out and then insert into holes in their mouths, which transmit the data to their brains.
Rattlers use proteins and enzymes to produce venom and can hit prey at up to two-thirds of their body length.
"They can strike from any direction from any position," McClinton says. "And they can swim real well for long distances."
Rattlesnakes kill and are killed, becoming prey for golden eagles and some hawks.
"They're an animal no more, no less than elk," he says. "They have a place out here."