If you spot a rattlesnake in the wild, then people say that you must be very close to their den. That would imply that there’s likely to be more than one snake nearby. It’s certainly true that lower seasonal temperatures lead to rattlesnakes staying significantly closer to their dens.
If you see a rattlesnake, you’re about 300 to 400 yards from their den. Rattlesnakes live communally in these dens in the winter, so there are usually multiple snakes. Dens can be just a few hundred yards apart, so you’re also likely to be close to a second den.
Rattlesnakes often use left behind burrows of wild rabbits and hollowed our trees for dens. Snakes don’t have arms and legs, and they’re also vulnerable to dangerous predators. So, rattlesnakes use energy-efficient methods to get what they need to survive. But they don’t need to move far, because they live where prey (food) is most abundant and where they’re close to potential mates.
How Far Do Rattlesnakes Travel in a Day?
Rattlesnakes aren’t great travelers. According to a paper by Jeffrey R. Mohr, a professor at Southern Wesleyan University, timber rattlesnakes are practically sedentary.
Over a year, he found that males moved just under two miles. And that doesn’t mean that they moved two miles away, it means that they only physically moved two miles the whole year long. Females moved even less, around half as much as males.
To take the figures provided in the study, males would only move an average of ten yards per day. That’s hardly anything, but do bear in mind that snakes don’t move every day.
They’ll spend a lot of time sleeping after they eat, days at a time not moving at all. If they eat a big meal, they could take a week or more to digest it, and they don’t like to move while they’re digesting. The study noted that their average distance moved, per movement, was 150 yards or so.
The mapped movements in Mohr’s study show that the snakes spent most of their time around their den, only moving significant distances away from it to give birth, in the case of gravid (pregnant) females. The study had a small sample size, but there were no significant outliers.
In the discussion section of Mohr’s paper, he does indicate that other studies report increased movement. He suggested that this might be because of the habitat he observed the snakes in, which provided ample food and places for cover (like fallen logs, and vegetation).
Other studies have found that rattlesnakes in other habitats move twice, even three times as much throughout the year. However, they still don’t stray far from their dens.
Where Do Rattlesnakes Live?
Over the warmer months, rattlesnakes live out in the open. At night, they’ll coil themselves up under a tree or some bushes, anywhere that they can get a little protection and can’t be seen.
But some rattlesnakes even sleep out in the open. The majority of rattlesnake species live near open and rocky areas and will hide under rocks at night.
During the winter, rattlesnakes live in dens, which are where they hide from the cold weather. They share these dens with other rattlesnakes, sometimes up to a thousand or more other snakes.
This is especially the case in colder areas, where the snakes gather together to conserve body heat. And believe it or not, they sometimes also share their den with other animals like tortoises or even small mammals.
Rattlesnakes themselves can’t burrow, so they rely on pre-existing dens or burrows made by other animals. Sheltered gaps or holes in rocks are a favorite spot for a den. They might also hide in burrows made by mammals like gophers.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, if you come across a rattlesnake, you’re likely to be within a mile or so of their den. In Virginia, for example, they found that timber rattlesnake dens were about 1.1 miles apart on average, and as close as just 0.2 miles (350 yards).
This varies between habitats, and in Maryland, they were on average 1.6 miles apart. Rattlesnakes will also return to their dens when it’s time to brumate (similar to hibernation).
What Kind of Habitat Do Rattlesnakes Like?
Rattlesnakes are found all across the Americas, and there are at least 80 different rattlesnake subspecies. This means that they live in a variety of habitats, not just one. Some live in the desert, others live in prairies and grasslands, whereas others live in forested areas.
However, many species of rattlesnakes are dependent on certain parts of their habitat to survive. This is called ‘plant association,’ and it means that they can only live in an environment with specific plants in it. That’s because of a variety of reasons:
- Certain animals feed on certain plants, and a species of rattlesnake eats that animal
- Certain plants keep the habitat humid or dry, whatever the rattlesnake prefers
- Certain plants provide cover for the rattlesnake
- The rattlesnake can only blend in with the color of a particular plant or plants and is vulnerable if it lives elsewhere
This is why animals can be so vulnerable to environmental change. Just by killing off one species of plant, you can make it difficult for a species to survive in that area.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that we don’t completely understand how all plants and animals interact, and they can, in unexpected ways.
Do Rattlesnakes Stay in the Same Area Forever?
Regarding different species or subspecies, yes, they tend to stay in the same area. You may find a rattlesnake climbing a tree in search of prey.
A rattlesnake that enjoys the dry and hot environment of the Mojave Desert can’t go and live in a forest (and the same applies vice versa). However, they are happy to move around within their natural habitat range, for reasons explored below.
That being said, rattlesnakes do tend to stay in the same area. Most rattlesnakes are loyal to their chosen den site, which means that they’ll remain in the same den year after year.
They even leave the den in the same direction each spring and come back on the same route in the fall. They’ll also remain in the same active range year after year unless environmental pressures make it difficult for them to eat or rest.
What About Egg-Laying Females?
Egg-laying females are an interesting exception. As females, they typically move less than the males do anyway.
This is because the male snakes have to come to them to mate, rather than the other way around. However, when it’s time for them to lay their eggs, they’ll travel a few hundred yards away from their den to lay their eggs.
Once their eggs have been laid, they then leave them be. Rattlesnake mothers aren’t protective of their eggs, or the young that hatch from them a few months later. The female snake will head back towards their den after mating to continue as they were.
The eggs are left close enough to the den that they can easily find it, not so that the mother can spend time with their young, but so that they have a better chance of surviving the winter.
Failing that, they would be able to find another nearby hide. This would increase the genetic diversity of the general rattlesnake population.
Why Don’t Rattlesnakes Travel Far?
There are many reasons why a rattlesnake might choose to leave their ‘home patch’:
- They could move to another habitat to find more food.
- They could move to find better places to bask (thermoregulation).
- They could move in search of mates.
However, there are many reasons why they don’t usually need to travel very far. First, they choose to live somewhere that food is abundant.
Rattlesnakes, despite their deadly venom, don’t actively choose to attack large prey. Most of their diet consists of rodents like white-footed mice and gray squirrels, with the occasional bird thrown in. These prey items can be found almost anywhere, so the snake doesn’t need to travel far.
Moreover, where prey is scarcer, the snake population is smaller, and so there’s not much competition. This applies whatever subspecies of rattlesnake we’re talking about.
This means that snakes don’t face much competition from fellow members of their same species, again meaning that they don’t have to travel very far.
Not only that but since rattlesnakes live communally in the winter time, there are guaranteed to be males and females in the same area when spring comes, and mating begins.
This means that rattlesnakes don’t need to search far and wide looking for a mate—they’re already right there. The fact that they have everything in one place means that rattlesnakes don’t need to move around a lot.