The eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake has a venomous and potentially lethal bite, and can effectively strike prey within a distance equal to around two-thirds of its body length (2) (5). The primary purpose of the venom is to aid in the digestion of prey, and much more venom is used when biting to obtain food than when biting in self-defence (2) (5). The venom contains a digestive enzyme, made up from a complex mixture of proteins, which attacks the nervous system, blood and tissues (3). It is administered to the prey by a pair of long, movable, needle-like fangs which lie flat inside the mouth when not in use (3) (6). The eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake preys primarily on small mammals such as mice, rats and rabbits, as well as some small birds (2) (3) (5) (6). Hunting is done during the day, with the snake sitting coiled and motionless for long periods of time, waiting to ambush prey that comes within striking distance (2) (3). The rattle is used mainly as a defensive warning signal when the snake is threatened, and the characteristic ‘rattling’ noise is made when the tail is moved rapidly, causing the rattle segments to clash against each other. Each time the snake sheds it skin as it grows, a new segment will be added to the rattle, although these often break off as the snake grows older (3).
The main breeding season occurs during the autumn, from early August to September, and is characterised by an increase in activity, with the male eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake travelling long distances in search of a suitable mate (2). Male rattlesnakes may engage in ritualised combat in order to determine social dominance and breeding rights with receptive females. This combat typically involves tongue flicking, raising parts of the body off the ground, facing-off and entwining around an opponent in an attempt to overpower the subordinate to the ground (2). The female eastern diamond-backed rattlesnake gives birth to between 6 and 21 live young (2) (3), which undergo their first shed after around 10 to 12 days, and are born fully equipped with venom, able to catch and kill their own prey (6).