Shake, Rattle and Roll – The New York Times

Shake, Rattle and Roll – The New York Times


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Victoria Roberts

Q. What are a rattlesnake’s rattles made of? Is it born with them? And what determines how many rattles it has?

A. Much like fingernails, the rattles are made of a protein called keratin, which strengthens cells in the outer layer of the snake’s skin. As the snake outgrows its skin and sheds it, remnants of these hardened cells are left behind, forming a rattle segment.

Each time the snake sheds, a new interlocking segment is formed in the shape of a three-lobed ring; as the snake gets larger, so do the segments. The timing of shedding is highly variable. A snake with many segments is older than one with only a few, but its exact age cannot be determined just from the rattles.

The rings are not present at birth, but a single small knob of keratin, sometimes called the birth button, is already there. It is sometimes lost through wear, as are older segments of the rattle.

The segments are hollow, and unlike a child’s rattle, they have no little balls inside. The noise they makes comes as a muscle in the tail shakes them against one another.



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