KSN - Vol 17, No 3 - AlabasterVolume 17, Number 3 - February 1971

Alabaster

ABOUT THIS ISSUE

Published by: The Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia

Prepared and Issued by: The Department of Biology,
with the cooperation of the Division of Education

Editor: Robert J. Boles

Editorial Committee: James S. Wilson, Robert F. Clarke, Gilbert A. Leisman, Harold Durst

Exofficio: Dr. Edwin B. Kurtz, Head, Dept. of Biology

Online edition by: Terri Weast

The Kansas School Naturalist is sent upon request, free of charge, to Kansas teachers, school board members and administrators, librarians, conservationists, youth leaders, and other adults interested in nature education. Back numbers are sent free as long as supply lasts, except Vol. 5, No.3, Poisonous Snakes of Kansas. Copies of this issue may be obtained for 25 cents each postpaid. Send orders to The Kansas School Naturalist, Department of Biology, Kansas State Teachers College, Emporia, Kansas, 66801.

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Alabaster

by Robert J. Boles

He has probably attended more classes than a Ph.D. candidate. He has performed before numerous students and other interested groups. In spite of all this, he has made absolutely no progress toward a degree. Who is this perennial "college student?" Why, Alabaster, the Biology Department's albino prairie rattlesnake.

Unfortunately, many people do not like snakes, rattlesnakes especially. Perhaps this issue of The Kansas School Naturalist will serve to broaden your understanding and appreciation of this interesting and valuable group of animals.

KSN - Vol 17, No 3 - Alabaster Fig. 1. Can you see from the above picture why albino organisms have so much trouble escaping their enemies in their natural environment? Here Alabaster and a normally-pigmented prairie rattlesnake are crawling across the green grass of the KSTC Campus. If you were a hawk or an owl, which one of the two do you think you would be most likely to spot as you flew over? Compare the way the two blend with their natural background, and decide which one you think would have the better chance of survival in nature. (Normally the grass of the prairie is a lighter color than that in the picture above).

Alabaster was born about the time school started in September, 1960 -at least that is about the time prairie rattlesnakes normally give birth to their young. He may have had anywhere from four to twenty-one brothers and sisters probably about a dozen. We'll never know about all these brothers and sisters, but we do know one thing about Alabaster -nature played a cruel prank on the little fellow. At least it would have been a cruel prank if he hadn't come to college (Fig. 1). A member of a species that depends upon protective coloration for escaping from its enemies and creeping up on its prey, he was born without any pigment in his skin -and an inability to manufacture any. Biologists call such individuals "albinos." No doubt the absence of pigment may occur at times among any normally pigmented species. Such individuals are usually doomed to an early death, as they stick out like the proverbial "sore thumb" in their natural environment.

Had Alabaster escaped capture, the shortened days and cooler nights would have caused him to hunt some cave or "snake den" in which to spend the winter in a state of inactivity called hibernation. However, Alabaster's white color against the darker background of his surroundings soon got him into trouble. On November 15 he was discovered by two members of a siesmographing crew, working in the Scott County Park area. In the scuffle of capturing him, the little albino was whacked across the neck, causing a temporary "kink" about one-half inch back of his head. Fortunatelv for Alabaster (and his many friends among the KSTC students) the blow did not cause permanent damage. His sixteen-inch long body, stuffed unceremoniously into a pop bottle, was taken to the Biology Department of Dodge City Junior College. Roscoe Waldorf, a member of the Dodge City Junior College Biology Staff, recognizing that he had a rarity in the reptile world, brought the little snake to the Biology Department of Kansas State Teachers College on December 15, 1960. This was the start of Alabaster's college career.

KSN - Vol 17, No 3 - Alabaster

Fig. 2. Alabaster was dwarfed by the four-inch water dish in his cage ten years ago. Now he is over three times as long as the length of the glass cage shown here.

KSN - Vol 17, No 3 - Alabaster

Fig. 3. Alabaster was only one year old when this picture was taken. He is coiled in a petri dish three and one-half inches in diameter. Note that he had two rattles and a button at the time. The whitish blister-like enlargement will become a new rattle when he sheds.

He was transferred to a glass cage (Fig. 2), where he readily accepted small live mice for food, though he often shook his one rattle and button at the person feeding him. Whether he rattled in nervousness or irritation we cannot say. It probably wasn't in appreciation for the meal, as appreciation and affection do not seem to be a part of Alabaster's makeup.

Unfortunately, our records fail to reveal who should receive credit for the name Alabaster. We do know that the name was used prior to 1963, and has stuck ever since.

Careful records have been kept of the feeding and behavior of Alabaster during his stay at KSTC. Some of the items might be of interest to the reader:

  1. KSN - Vol 17, No 3 - Alabaster

    Fig. 6. See why snakes like Alabaster are called "pit vipers?" The dark hole you see is lined with heat-sensitive nerve endings, which permit a rattlesnake to search out and capture warm-blooded prey, even in a pitch-black rodent burrow.


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    Fig. 7. Only two or three times, out of over three hundred mice, has Alabaster ever swallowed his meal any way but head first. These few exceptions were either very tiny mice· or when he was nearly blind, as he is prior to shedding. Note how the jaws and throat stretch to permit the swallowing of the mouse. Though in Nature rattlesnakes eat only the normal grayish-colored mice, Alabaster doesn't seem to mind what color mouse he is fed.


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    Fig. 8. Note the old skin peeling off to the left as Alabaster crawls across the rough sand bottom of his cage. He literally "crawls out of his old skin," and emerges in his new, clean, and shiny "suit."


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    Fig. 9. Alabaster's old suit, unlike that of boys and girls, is totally unfit as a "hand-me-down" to a younger brother or sister.


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    Fig. 10. Ten old rattles and a white "rattle-to-be" may be seen in this picture. The button is still present, but was worn off by the abrasive action of the sand in the cage soon after the picture was taken.


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    Fig. 11. For a period of time before shedding, a snake is almost blind. Compare the milky appearance of the eye above with the clear eye in Fig. 6.


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    Fig. 12. "Where's my chow?" Alabaster comes to the front of his cage when he is hungry, and stares at anyone looking at him, as if to let them know that he is ready to eat.


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    Fig. 13. Alabaster has many friends, especially among children. The elementary boys and girls above asked many questions about poisonous snakes, and Alabaster in particular, during their visit.


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    Fig. 14. Alabaster's home. After each shedding (note the old skin) he is removed from his cage and placed on the ground while his cage is cleaned and fresh sand placed on the bottom.


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    Fig. 15. Alabaster is easily removed from and replaced in his cage by means of a "snake stick." A stick with a metal hook at the end is usually used in order to avoid injury to his many delicate ribs.


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    Fig. 16. A plan for a cage in which to keep a poisonous snake. The drawing gives the dimensions of Alabaster's present cage, though the size may be varied to fit the size and number of snakes to be displayed. Note the double thickness of screen and glass. This prevents the fangs of the snake being able to reach someone who might place his hand on the cage, or the snake from escaping should one of the panes of glass become broken.


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    Fig. 17. Rattlesnakes are immune to their own poison. The dark spot on Alabaster's back in the picture above is blood, where he accidentally struck himself when he struck at a mouse that ran across his back. He appeared to suffer no ill after effects of any kind.


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    Fig. 18. Alabaster can digest every part of a mouse except the hair. Above are the "hairy remains" of five meals.

    Rattlesnakes normally prefer live, warm-blooded prey for food. In the wild this food consists primarily of small mammals, such as rats, mice, gophers, and prairie dogs. In the laboratory, mice are the usual item of food on Alabaster's menu. Captive snakes can be taught to eat dead mice, if they are offered while still warm. Alabaster often gets the bodies of mice which have been sacrificed for some phase of research.

  2. Alabaster usually strikes a mouse but once. The mouse normally dies within a half minute or so, though the time may vary from a fraction of a second to several minutes (Fig. 4). Once in a while he seems to have little if any poison in his poison sacs, and in a few cases he has struck a mouse repeatedly with little effect. Several time he had apparently shed his old fangs, and, with the replacement fangs not fully developed, he appeared the picture of frustration as he struck the mouse repeatedly as he tried to kill it so it could be eaten.

  3. Mice are not hypnotized by the stare of a snake. In fact, they usually show no special fear, and, when the snake is not hungry, have even been seen to sit contentedly on his head in the cage.

  4. A rattlesnake is not "bloodthirsty." It will kill only what it needs for food. If it is not hungry, a snake will not normally strike a mouse (Fig 5). In fact, a snake which isn't hungry may have its rattles chewed off if the mouse isn't removed from the cage. There are even cases where the mouse has killed the snake without the snake striking back. When Alabaster doesn't appear hungry, the mouse which has been offered to him as food is removed from the cage after a short time.

  5. A rattlesnake will not normally start to swallow its prey until the intended meal has ceased to move. The ritual through which the snake goes following the striking of the mouse is always the same:

    a. Wait quietly until the snake "thinks" its prey is dead.
    b. Locate its victim. In nature the mouse would be "trailed" by means of the highly-developed sense organs of the snake (Fig. 6). However, Alabaster has become careless, and appears to crawl aimlessly about his cage until he locates the body.
    c. Touch the mouse's ears with the tip of his sensitive tongue. He is probably able to tell if blood is still circulating through the blood vessels of the thin ears of the mouse.
    d. Touch the mouse's tail with his tongue. As one little boy asked, "Is he seeing if it is dead at both ends?"
    e. Yawn widely to dislocate his jaws. (A snake does not swallow its prey as we swallow a bite of food. It literally "crawls around" the object it is going to consume.,)
    f. Start at the head, and swallow the mouse head first (Fig. 7).
    g. Repeat the wide yawn in order to put the jaws back in place.

  6. The number of times a snake sheds its skin (Fig. 8-9) is determined largely by the number of meals it has, as well as by the size of the snake. Ectoparasites or injury may also cause a snake to shed its skin. Alabaster has shed as many as five times in a year, but now that he is a "big boy" he doesn't need a new suit of skin but two or three times a year. In one case only twenty-seven days elapsed between sheddings, while at another time
    nearly five months passed from one shedding to the next. He has shed his old skin almost forty
    times in the past eleven years. In this time he has eaten over three hundred mice and small rats.

  7. Rattlesnakes usually wear or break off their rattles as they crawl over the rough sand and gravel. Alabaster had one rattle and a button when he was captured. (For some reason, a young rattlesnake sheds the first time soon after being born) . He has spent almost his entire life in a cage, protected from injury, and yet he has lost his button and many of his rattles (Fig. 10). He has never had more than fourteen rattles at anyone time. Composed of thin, dry skin, the rattles are quite fragile and easily worn away or broken. Had Alabaster all of his forty or so rattles, they would be over seven inches long.

  8. A new rattle is gained each time a snake sheds its skin. Obviously the number a snake has does not indicate the age of the reptile, as Alabaster has averaged almost four new rattles a year.

  9. Rattlesnakes are more irritable than usual when they are about ready to shed their skin. As they also shed the covering over their eyes, they are at least partially blind for awhile prior to the time of shedding. The eyes of a snake that is about ready to shed will appear a milky color (Fig. 11). This milky-colored condition clears up just prior to the actual shedding. Snakes appear to realize instinctively that they are more vulnerable to their enemies at this time. It is under such conditions that the snake may strike at "shadows" (as that is probably all he sees) and without warning.

  10. Alabaster will eat a mouse while his eyes are dimmed by the whitish covering, though he is not as accurate in striking his prey as when he can see clearly. In nature he could probably have struck accurately even in pitch darkness, using the sensory pits on the side of his head to insure accuracy. However, he has gotten careless, or his natural instincts have become dulled during his years of pampered living, and so he sometimes misses his mouse even when he can see clearly. Such carelessness would probably mean a hungry snake in the wild, as Nature doesn't often give too many second chances. One of the few times Alabaster has been seen to swallow a mouse while it was still wiggling was while he was "blind" just prior to shedding. One can only assume that he "thought" he had better hang onto his meal while he had it, as he might not be able to find it again.

  11. Alabaster has eaten several very small mice without striking them first. He seems to "know" that they cannot escape nor bite him as he swallows them.

  12. Even though his intelligence is quite limited, Alabaster has shown that he can learn simple things, if the act is repeated often enough. For example:
    a. When a number of visitors come to see Alabaster, they often ask if we will feed him so tha t they can see how a snake eats. After about seventy such meals, he learned that a crowd means a chance for food (Fig. 12), and he now becomes excited when he sees several people (Fig. 13) standing and looking in his cage. He pays little to no attention to one or two people.
    b. A combination lock is kept on his cage (Fig. 14), so that some child cannot thoughtlessly put his hand into the cage. This lock must be opened in order to feed Alabaster. After many repetitions, he finally learned that when he feels the vibrations of the lock being opened, it usually means a mouse. In fact, he will hurry over and put his head against the door, waiting for his meal. If he is quite hungry, he may try to strike the mouse while the person feeding him still has it by the tail. It is a bit disconcerting, to say the least, to have the mouse knocked from your fingers! This is one of the reasons why we only let certain people feed Alabaster, as we don't want him mistaking someone's finger for a mouse. The plan for Alabaster's cage is included (Fig. 16) in case any of our readers wish to construct one.
    c. Though Alabaster can "count to one," he cannot apparently comprehend up to two. If a mouse is introduced into the cage and he strikes it, and a second mouse is then dropped in, he will not usually strike the second mouse, but will follow it around, waiting for it to die. When he comes across the body of the first mouse, he will stop and eat it. Being now back down to "one," he will then strike the second mouse and consume it.

  13. A rattlesnake is immune to its own venom. One day while excitedly striking at a mouse which was crawling across his back, Alabaster accidentally struck himself (Fig. 17). Though the fangs brought blood, he appeared to suffer no ill after effects from his mishap.

  14. The poison is not harmful to human skin. In fact, it is not poisonous when taken into the mouth, provided there are no open sores in the oral cavity. One day Alabaster, in his hurry to get the mouse he was to be fed, struck the wire of his cage, squirting venom on the face and arm of the professor who was going to feed him. Several students gasped with horror at the sight of the poison on a human, and one nearly passed out when the professor calmly placed some of the venom on his tongue.

  15. Shedding of the old skin is much like removing a tight-fitting glove. Alabaster will yawn widely, apparently to loosen the skin about his head. Then, using some of the rough scales on his back, will start the skin to peeling back from his head. Crawling over the sand of his cage, and circling his water dish, he will literally "crawl out of his hide." (Fig. 8) Even the covering over his eyes will be shed. He will then emerge a clean, creamy white, with a new rattle on his tail - not at the end, but between his body and the next rattle.

  16. All a rattlesnake needs is just a slight bend in its neck to strike. Alabaster never coils to strike his prey. He creeps upon the mouse, and strikes it from a distance of only a few inches.

  17. A rattlesnake's digestive juices are very powerful. Alabaster digests every part of a mouse but the hair (Fig. 18).

Dr. Max Hensley (1959) in his paper on albinism in North American amphibians and reptiles reported that he was able to find records of only seven albino or albinistic prairie rattlesnakes. Four of these were reported as true albinos, while the remaining three were "regarded as exhibiting a tendency toward albinism." The only Kansas record listed in Hensley's paper was of a partial albino captured in Thomas County over 35 years ago.

Alabaster's case may be regarded as an example of xanthic albinism, in which only faint yellowish markings may be seen. The yellowish color is most visible 'prior to shedding, and almost invisible just after the old skin has been lost. With increasing age the markings have become progressively less visible, until now almost no markings can be seen on the snake at any time.

The pupil's of Alabaster's eyes are pink. This is not a pink pigment, but is due to blood in the capillaries of the snake's eyes. With no pigment to shield out light rays, Alabaster finds a strong light very irritating and apparently somewhat painful. When he is taken outside and removed from his cage so that it may be cleaned, the combination of bright sunlight and paving spent his life in a cage appears to be somewhat bewildering. He seems to feel much more comfortable and secure when in the confines of his cage.

One of the questions we are often asked is, "What are rattlesnakes good for?" The implication is that such a poisonous animal should never have been created. Rattlesnakes are predators - that is, they feed upon other animals for food. As mentioned earlier in this paper, these food items are usually mice or rats, small mammals whose great reproductive potential makes it possible for them to increase in numbers until they may reach plague proportions. What do rats and mice eat? Wheat, oats, and other grains make up the bulk of their diets. What does man eat? Wheat, oats, other grains -the same type of food as rats and mice. Every rat or mouse that a rattlesnake eats is one less to compete with man for his food supply. Rats and mice also do a great deal of damage with their gnawing. Many fires have been traced to the gnawing of such rodents through insulation about electrical wires. Each rat or mouse consumed reduces the number that might do such damage. Rats and mice also serve as reservoirs for such dread human diseases as tularemia and bubonic plague, or the "Black Death." Rattlesnakes help to reduce the dangers from these diseases by destroying a possible source of human infection.

You may say, "But they are dangerous to man!" Are humans bitten in their homes, or is it when man deliberately invades the natural home of the rattlesnake? Are they as dangerous as a speeding or defective automobile? Do they cause as many injuries and deaths as drunken drivers? Are your chances of dying from snake bite greater than that from lung cancer brought on by excessive smoking? Obviously their reputation is much worse than the actual danger to man or to his domestic animals, and the benefit they provide by helping to control man's rodent enemies far outweighs their potential danger.

Two other questions that are often asked are, "How long will Alabaster live?," and "How big will he get?" We cannot give definite answers to such questions. Reptiles do little worrying, so ulcers, high blood pressure, and the multitude of ills humans endure due to stress and the rush of every day living are no problem. Reptiles apparently do not die of "old age," as we usually think of it. They grow throughout their lives, and, when fed and protected, as Alabaster is, may live for many years. Most prairie rattlesnakes get to be about three feet long. However, they have been recorded up to five feet in length. Alabaster is now over forty-five inches long, and still growing. He has a ways to go to beat the record, though.


This fine set of pictures (below) should answer many of the questions about how a snake swallows its prey. Rattlesnakes never chew their food, but swallow it whole. The milky color of his eyes indicates that he is about to shed again and gain a new rattle. His near blindness at this time may account partly why he was undisturbed by the flash bulbs used in taking of the series of pictures. (This series of photos by Robert W. Wright. All other pictures by the author.)

KSN - Vol 17, No 3 - Alabaster

KSN - Vol 17, No 3 - Alabaster

KSN - Vol 17, No 3 - Alabaster

KSN - Vol 17, No 3 - Alabaster

KSN - Vol 17, No 3 - Alabaster


For those of you who may wish to learn more about the poisonous snakes of Kansas, such as their distribution, life histories, and identifying characteristics, and have not had the opportunity to read the highly popular issue by Dr. Robert Clarke entitled, "Poisonous Snakes of Kansas" (Vol. 5, No. 3, February 1959), copies are still available upon request. A small charge of twenty five cents is made· for this issue to help pay for the added expense of the color plates.


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