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Water is scarce in the diamondback’s arid habitat, but the snake has a tough skin that conserves moisture and a behavior pattern that helps it avoid the worst of the heat. The rattlesnake’s heat sensing pit organ guide the snake toward its prey, allowing it to strike with deadly accuracy even in total darkness.

The western diamondback rattlesnake lives in arid, scrubby semi deserts of the southwest U.S. from California to Arkansas. Usually found in dry, sandy, or rocky terrain, the rattlesnake sometimes ventures onto cultivated land. The diamondback is adapted to surviving in a barren landscape where less than 1” of rain falls a year.

Lack of water in its dusty range poses no problem for the diamondback. It can go for months without drinking, obtaining all the moisture it needs from its prey. The rattlesnake recycles as much of its body fluids as possible and when it does urinate, it excretes the waste as concentrated uric acid crystals rather than as a fluid. This takes the form of a white paste and is passed with the feces. In hotter areas the diamondback is most active at night, moving around in the open sunshine all day would cause it to overheat. Like other snakes, the rattlesnake can not generate enough body heat to operate its organs. The diamondback often spends the hottest daylight hours dozing beneath a rock.

When hunting, the snake investigates every cranny, its forked tongue flicking in and out to taste the air for scent of prey. It preys mostly on rodents, but may eat small birds, lizards and larger animals, such as prairie dogs, ground squirrels and rabbits. As the snake strikes, long, hollow fangs swing down to stab into the prey and inject a lethal dose of venom. The jaws dislocate and skin stretches as the mouth engulfs the victim. The snake can not swallow, it walks its jaws over its prey to ingest it.

The female diamondback can breed only once every two years, so there is intense competition among males. In spring, males are drawn to receptive females by scent. Several males may arrive in the same area at the same time, this signals the need for a contest to decide which of them will win the female. Mating may last 24 hours and eggs are fertilized internally. Eggs also develop and incubate inside the female’s body for about 165 days, after which young are born fully developed. The dozen or so young snakes may be up to 12” long and are independent immediately. They soon move off to catch their own prey, already equipped to deliver a killing bite.

The western diamondback is not endangered yet, but its numbers are declining, along with other rattlesnake species, due to the ‘rattlesnake roundups’ that take place in some states.