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Alien Close Encounter – a thought experiment

15 Jan


Utsanati in a resting coil. Photo by Steve O’Neil

I entitle this story “Alien Close Encounter.”  By Steve O’Neil

For the next few moments tap into your all-too-human willing suspension of disbelief, and imagine what it must be like to be a Timber rattlesnake.  Please keep in mind that reptiles, with their reptilian brains, do not possess human-like emotions or “higher” reasoning skills and therefore function on instinct alone not sensing their environment the same way us macrocephalic humans do.   For the reader to better understand and “feel” what it must be like to exist as a Timber rattlesnake, I have taken the liberty of anthropomorphizing the situation in the attempt to give you an idea of what it would be like to be a Timber rattlesnake – from an entirely human point of view.


It is mid July.  A warm, soaking summer rain has recently fallen and there is thunder in the distance. The forest covered mountain you call home is warm, wet, steamy, calm…and alive with a myriad of diverse and wonderful living things.  Slowly, cautiously, you ease out of the safe crack under the sheltering log you used to get out of the rain, and move into a bright beam of warmth filtering down through the still heavily dripping canopy.  You sit in a loose resting coil, your yellow-gold scales shining in the warm summer sun. You soak up the warm sky-heat and the life-giving energy from last night’s Chipmunk meal coursing through your body.  Your belly is full…you are safe, warm, and partially hidden from view by the tall berry-filled bushes all around you…and by your cryptic camouflage that breaks up your pattern against the leaf litter…you are as content as a rattlesnake can be.  Soon you doze off to sleep and your rattle hangs silent and unused for you have nothing to fear because you are in your own living room.  Time passes…


Zoe is a beautiful creature.  Photo by Steve Atkins

Suddenly, you are jolted awake…you are now in the shade but still very warm…what woke you…the forest is still quiet, steamy, and dripping with rainwater…could it have been the water drops still falling from the canopy world high above?  You sense the tiny vibrations from all around as the last droplets of water strike the nearby leaves and rocks…even your scales are covered by tiny, glistening droplets of water that have fallen from the canopy…it must have been something else.  A small dark spider crosses silently over your back unaware of your presence…you do not move.


Utsanati covered in dewdrops. Photo by Steve O’Neil

The only other thing that has changed is the position of the life-giving fire in the sky…it is closer to “End of the day Mountain” where the lions once lived.  You stay very still…assessing the forest for more information…then suddenly your senses tell that something is not right…you feel it through your belly scales…a vibration coming up through the warm, wet, leaf litter…there is something large moving through the forest and it is coming your way…it is getting closer…you flick your tongue tasting the air…nothing but wet forest…moss…leaves…trees…a slight hint of last night’s meal…there it is again, you can feel its footfalls…they are not gentle, not close together and ambling such as deer would make…not the wayward scurrying of your favorite meal…not the bounding of bobcat or the lumbering gait of bear…no, these are widely spaced heavy footfalls and their vibrations tell you this creature is large…maybe as large as bear…yet different somehow…its footfalls are so very different…you cannot see it…you flick your tongue…tasting the air again…there…a new taste…an old memory forms…you taste something you have only occasionally tasted…only when the winds blow from the to-be-avoided, odd looking, very loud, rock and tree habitat-caves on top of the ridge.  It is a complex pungent taste, unlike anything in the forest…a blending of so many unusual and foreign tastes and odors…it is so alien to you…but now the taste is so much stronger than you have ever sensed…then you see it…taller than bear…walking on two legs as bear does when he wants to look around…what is this thing?!  It crashes forward through the bushes, small forest creatures and birds rapidly move out of its way as it advances.  It moves plants and even small trees out of its way with long, lanky, fore limbs…it  must be almost as strong as bear!  Unlike bear its coat is bright and oddly colored – how does it hide from predators with a coat like that?!  Your “little voice”(instinct) tells you that animals with bright colors are to be avoided – maybe it is dangerous! You flatten your body against the ground attempting to blend in more with the forest floor…your heat sensors tell you that its body is very warm like bear…it must be wonderful to always be warm.  Unlike bear it seems to have a large shell on its back like old turtle?  Just what is this odd looking creature – so many questions but no time to answer them!  It is coming directly toward you…it is SO LOUD…it is SO TALL…it is SO LARGE…all your instincts tell you it must be DANGEROUS and must be avoided. You feel so small…so vulnerable…out in the open of the forest floor…in your world, large animals almost always try to EAT smaller ones like you…if only you could dash into the cover of your sheltering crack under the nearby log without being seen…ever since you can remember you have spent many safe nights under there yet now you are frozen with fear and afraid to move…afraid to reveal your position to this massive creature…you are very afraid…SO VERY AFRAID!


Zoe close up. Notice her heat sensing pit organ in front of and below her eye.

Photo by Steve Atkins

You do not want to die – you still have many things you must do.  You know you are vulnerable and exposed in the middle of the small clearing in the forest.  You are visible…but only if you move and the creature sees you.  Your “little voice” screams out again and tells you to remain absolutely still and do not move because you have a very unique form of camouflage that breaks up the outline of your body and hides you very well…unless you move.  The monstrously strange creature moves still closer…your senses are on red alert…adrenaline surges through your muscles and a tingling sensation moves throughout your body…if it gets much closer you will be forced to let it know that it is too close…you will be forced to shake your tail and that changes everything.  If you shake your tail you may even be forced to defend your life using the only defense you have-the venom in your teeth.


Zoe after having a recent large feed. Photo by Steve O’Neil

The towering, ugly, stinking, loud, alien creature moves a bit closer, its massive flat feet crushing the leaves, breaking sticks, and probably small forest creatures underneath…it is terrifying to think what it’s huge feet would do to you if it stepped on you!! Suddenly, just when you are about to shake your rattle, it stops just a few snake lengths from where you are coiled.  It takes off its turtle shell…how strange…old turtle cannot take off her shell!?  It removes some sort of shiny, cylindrical object from within the shell and raises it to its whiskered, somewhat Raccoon-like face – you smell water for a moment – some droplets of the life-giving liquid fall to the ground and you feel their impact as they splatter on nearby Deermouse rock – then it puts the watery object back into its turtle shell, puts the shell on its back, turns toward the valley, and moves off toward the Land of the loud and shaggy slave wolf clan to the north.  That was just too close.  You stay totally still but for your deep breathing and the occasional flick of your tongue.  You wait until you do not feel its vibrations or smell its pungent aroma any longer and only then do you slowly move back under your rock.  You coil tightly as you can coil feeling the unbelievable stress and exhaustion brought on by the horrifying encounter start to fade away from your muscles.  Now in the comfort of your favorite summer shelter you soon fall deep asleep as a soft rain starts to fall on your ancient forest and the sun slips away behind End of the day Mountain.


Zoe resting on a low limb. Photo by Steve O’Neil

Did that story help you understand and respect the Timber rattlesnake even just a little bit more?  I hope so.  Not only are they part of a healthy ecosystem but they have a place in this world, a place in the wild doing what rattlesnakes do–controlling rodent populations, moving energy around the forest, and providing food for other animals.  They are not “evil,” “mean,” and “nasty” “monsters” that are out to hunt down and ruthlessly kill people.  They are peaceful, solitary creatures that, operate on instinct rather than emotion and prefer to be left alone, but they will protect themselves if threatened accidentally or intentionally with harm.

So would I.

Statistics show that only about 5 people a year die from venomous snake bites in the USA.  However, between 2006 and 2015, 313 people were killed by lightning.  In 2015 alone 35,092 people died in vehicle related accidents and cigarette smoking kills an estimated 480,000 deaths annually!   These stats suggest that you have an exponentially greater chance of being struck by lightening, meeting your end in a car accident and/or due to your nasty habit of smoking toxic tobacco than from the bite of an indigenous venomous snake.

These statistics speak for themselves so why do people continue to target and kill venomous snakes?  Fear? Erroneous beliefs that snakes are somehow “bad” or “evil?”  Lack of information and quality education?  Misunderstandings?  Bad television, movies, and media representation?  Collection for the illegal bush meat, “pet,” and clothing trades? Some kind of macho insecurity?  The answer is all of the above.  If we do not stop the killing and ignorant persecution, then one day they will all be gone and what then will the forest have lost…


Collecting data while Zoe looks on.  Photo by Steve Atkins

Recently, I visited an ancient Timber rattlesnake den site not far from my study area.  For eons this site hosted dozens of healthy rattlesnakes of all ages.  About a week before my visit the site had been plundered by snake hunters who had not a care in the world for the snakes or the habitat.  I saw not a single snake.  The habitat was destroyed.  All the snakes had been captured or killed and for what–skins, money, meat, small minded machismo–probably all of those reasons. I am saddened to think that this site had existed for probably millions of years as a rattlesnake haven and in only a few hours it was reduced to ruin by ignorant sub-humans out for a few dollars.

This practice must end.

Education is the key to understanding and with understanding comes respect, conservation, and preservation.

This is why I do what I do.  This is why I am passionate about educating everyone I meet about why Timber rattlesnakes and all wildlife and wild places are of utmost importance to us all.


Can you find Zoe in this photo?  Photo by Steve Atkins.

I’m not saying that you should run out and become a “snake handler.”  I am just asking you to please learn the facts about these beautiful and misunderstood creatures and their most important and interconnected role in nature.  Please work to develop a great respect and admiration for them as I do for they are true, one-of-a-kind jewels of the forest.


Utsanati on the move. Photo by Steve O’Neil

Utsanati and Zoe are two wild Timber rattlesnakes that I followed for almost four years in a radio telemetry based habitat use and movement study in the mountains of Western North Carolina, USA.

Watch highlights from the the study on my YouTube playlist.  

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