American International Rattlesnake Museum
One of a Kind
Growing up in rural North Carolina, I saw plenty of snakes. I saw them in the fields, in the garden, crossing the road and, a couple of times, in our house. Although they were harmless rat black snakes, they were fodder for scary stories and bad dreams. As a child I heard stories from adults about sightings of kingsnakes, copperheads and cottonmouth or water moccasins. But never a rattlesnake! So I was determined to visit the International Rattlesnake Museum during my Albuquerque visit to see what the fascination was all about.
The American International Rattlesnake Museum, a squat adobe building just off the Old Town Albuquerque’s main square, boosts the world’s largest collection of living rattlesnake species – more than the San Diego Zoo, the Bronx Zoo, the Washington, DC National Zoo, the Philadelphia Zoo, the San Francisco Zoo, and the Denver Zoo, all combined.
When I entered the front door, I entered a world of all things rattler beginning with an old New Mexico license plate inviting visitors to slither on in. I was amused by the license plate and thought it rather fitting for the museum. My amusement grew when I walked into the museum and saw an entire wall of license plates with similar snake terminology.
Included in the museum’s collection are both venomous and nonvenomous species. Venomous varieties include the Arizona Black Rattlesnake, one of several subspecies commonly grouped together and collectively called Western Rattlesnakes. The Costa Rican Rattlesnake found throughout Central and South America, has the honor of being an earthly representative of various deities in the Mayan culture. You’ll find it carved in stone in many ruins of the great cities and ceremonial centers in Mexico and Central America.
The Desert Horned Viper, so named because of their distinctive horns that stick out above each eye, grows to four or five feet long. They live primarily in hot African deserts and bury themselves in the sand to keep cool in the desert heat. Because their coloration makes them difficult to detect when buried, many bites to humans result when the viper is stepped on. Its venom causes severe damage to blood cells and tissue. They move about by sidewinding on the sand usually with their bodies in front of their heads in order to keep the sun out of their face.
The Western Diamondback, another venomous specimen, is the museum’s largest rattler resident. Because of its size and fearsome reputation, this is the snake we see most often in the movies. These fearless pit vipers are armed and dangerous at birth, born not hatched at about ten inches and complete with fangs and venom. They have reserve fangs to replace any that break off in its victim. They grow to about five feet and have a striking distance of about one-third to one-half their body length.
Unlike its milder mannered most potently venomous kin the Mojave Rattlesnake, the Western Diamondback is neither lethargic nor non-aggressive. When threatened, it will coil, rattle fearsomely to warn intruders, and stand its ground. Its venom causes extensive tissue damage, bleeding and swelling in humans. The Western Diamondback is responsible for most of the 8,000 or so venomous snake bites experienced each year, more than any other venomous snake in the U.S., even the more poisonous Mojave Rattlesnake. Just like in the movies, these snakes can be found in colder climates hibernating by the hundreds in community dens in caves or rocky recesses.
The Western Diamondback molts, sheds its skin, two or three times each year and adds a rattle with each molt. Because rattlesnakes in general may molt more than once each year and rattles sometime break off, you cannot tell the age of a rattlesnake by the number of rattles.
While the Western Diamondback is the museum’s largest snake, the Western Pigmy rattlesnake is its tiniest. Full grown, it is only 15 – 20 inches long and has extremely small rattles with seven or eight of them measuring only about a quarter inch. Although its bites are venomous and painful, they are rarely fatal.
Non-venomous varieties include the Arizona Mountain Kingsnake, whose tri-colors resemble the venomous coral snake in the United State. It can be identified by its distinctive color pattern of red banding adjacent to black banding as opposed to the red banding adjacent to the yellow (or white) banding of the venomous coral snake. To be on the safe side, warns a sign on the tank, “don’t try to touch ANY wild snakes!.”
The Texas Rat Snake, another non-venomous variety, is a large and powerful constrictor. It can be found from the bayous of Louisiana through the prairies and hill country of Central Texas. They grow to an average of four to five feet long and are said by many Texans to be one of the meanest of all snakes.
Although the color of most Texas Rat Snakes ranges from brown or slate to yellowish or orangish brown, the Leucistic specimen pictured here is completely snow white with blue-black eyes. This is not an albino snake which would have pink or red eyes.
The Rattlesnake Museum is also home to ground dwellers other than snakes. A slow moving, wingless, non-biting Madagascar Giant Hissing Cockroach sat nearly hidden under the miniature landscape. They are large, easy to see and docile for children willing to touch them, so these cockroaches are ideal for classroom observation and science projects.
In another tank is a hairy light brown Desert Blond Tarantula, a popular long lived, easy care pet. Their bit is non-poisonous and feels like a bee sting.
The largest non-viper in the museum is the Gila Monster (pronounced Hee-la), one of only two venomous lizards in the world. Gila Monsters are the heaviest lizard in the U.S. usually growing to a length of 16 to 20 inches. Although they have few natural predators, they, unfortunately, are also the slowest moving lizard in the country making them frequent victims for passing automobiles and mean spirited humans. In captivity, Gila Monsters can live 20 to 30 years. The one on display was born in the San Diego Zoo in 1988.
In another tank dripping with moisture was a Colorado River Toad also known as Sonoran Desert Toad, a native of southern California and Arizona in the U.S. with a range down through North America into Sinaloa, Mexico. This is a large toad growing to about 7.5 inches. They secrete a very poisonous toxin that causes powerful hallucinations when ingested and in large amounts can be lethal to humans. Their toxins can also be harmful to dogs that are successful in catching the toads in their mouth.
Although the Rattlesnake Museum is popular with kids, it is not just for kids. It is an intriguing, educational experience for the entire family and one that will enhance understanding of the importance of snakes in the ecological food chain. In addition to its collection of rattlesnakes and other living species, the museum provides educational videos suited for all ages, posted messages that provide the scientific and common names of the species being exhibited, information about the species such as coloration, size and where they are typically found.
Anyone with a real interest or fascination with snakes, rattlers or other kind, will be thrilled with the museum’s gift shop, the home to an astounding array of snake-related artwork, artifacts, and memorabilia.
Snakes are feared by most folks. However, their danger to humans is far outweighed by their contribution to the environment. They eat rodents and many other pests that humans don't want to be bothered with. During my short visit, I became more convinced than ever that rattlesnakes, all snakes in fact, have earned respect regarding their place in maintaining the ecological balance. Its much easier to give that respect, however, when they’re not slithering across the living room floor.
If you go
202 San Felipe NW
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Kids $3 • Adults $5 • Seniors, Military, Students $4