Land & Conservation

A Day Tracking Diamondbacks

Getting up close with the world’s largest rattlesnake in South Carolina’s pine savannas

Photo: Blake Shorter

Wando, an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, in South Carolina's Francis Marion National Forest.

“We’re within ten feet.”

“He knows we’re here.”

“Nobody move.”

The “he” in question is a five-foot, six-pound eastern diamondback rattlesnake named Wando, who is, according to the insistent beeping of the receiver, somewhere underneath our feet. We’re standing in the dense brush of the Francis Marion National Forest outside Charleston, South Carolina. A six-person team from the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy (ARC) is here today for a summer check-in on six eastern diamondbacks they’ve previously captured and outfitted with radio transmitters.

photo: Blake Shorter
Eastern diamondbacks blend into the wire grass of the pine savanna ecosystems they call home.

The eastern diamondback population is in decline across its range, from North Carolina to Louisiana, due to habitat loss and persecution from humans, and the team is hopeful the data they’re amassing in the Francis Marion will provide vital clues that can help head the species off the path to extinction.

Ben Morrison, ARC’s field manager, spots Wando first. “Just there,” he says, pointing with his snake hook—a long stick with a metal hook at the business end for gentle handling. At first, I see a mosaic of brown, yellow, and green brush; I stare harder, and the jumble consolidates into the graceful coils and triangular head of Wando, watching us calmly, tongue tasting the air.

photo: Blake Shorter
Ben Morrison, ARC’s field manager, tracks the rattlesnakes using radio telemetry.

Eastern diamondbacks are shockingly beautiful, golden brown with white-and-chocolate diamonds rippling across their scales, engineered for blending into the longleaf pine savannas that once blanketed the Southeast. Today, these open, sun-soaked pine forests—home to species including gopher tortoises, pitcher plants, quail, red-cockaded woodpeckers, and many other snakes—have been developed and fragmented, reduced to three percent of their former range. Here in a 10,000-acre swath of the Francis Marion, the biologists estimate that just two hundred diamondbacks lie hidden within the landscape. 

Morrison and C.L. Abercrombie, a retired Wofford College herpetology professor, ease their hooks under Wando’s body and lift. For a split second, he’s in the air framed against the pines, calm and still, before they lower him into a deep black bag, twist it, and knot it shut. This encounter will yield valuable data—Wando’s precise GPS coordinates, notes on his body condition, weight, and habitat usage.

photo: Blake Shorter
Morrison and Abercrombie carefully use their snake hooks to lift Wando and place him into a deep black bag for data collection.

Since the Francis Marion project’s informal beginning in 2013, ARC has taken more than 1,500 such data points; that’s 1,500-plus times someone has tracked a diamondback through miles of brush by waving a contraption of metal rods overhead. (Radio telemetry starts as a science and refines to an art, Abercrombie tells me—it reminds me of playing hot and cold as a kid.) In all those captures, a snake struck in warning only once, when a biologist got between a female called Chattahootchee Mama and the hole she wanted to go down. “These snakes are incredibly chill,” says JJ Apodaca, the director of conservation at ARC. That’s not to say the biologists don’t take every precaution—everyone must don thick boots to the knee, the mood turns instantly serious when a diamondback is nearby, and they handle the snakes for the bare minimum of time necessary. 

Weighing Wando is a quick affair, and Morrison instructs me in the release. Assurances of “chill” aside, my heart pounds like a drum as I untie the knot, grab the ends of the bag at the bottom, where Wando sits coiled, and lift. Once on the ground, he sits for a moment, then unhurriedly winds toward me. The instinct-defying order of business is to stay put, “so you’re just a tree,” as Abercrombie says, and less likely to make the snake feel threatened. I am busy commending my spirit to the heavens when Wando changes direction and passes within centimeters of Abercrombie, who remains wholly unperturbed. 

photo: Blake Shorter
The biologists always wear high boots or snake guards when tracking diamondbacks.

We admire Wando for a bit longer, until he informs us the visit is over by stopping, raising his tail, and rattling. Almost as one, the biologists back off, not from fear so much as from a deep respect for the animals that colors each data-gathering encounter. 

The takeaways from that data are informative, if somewhat bleak. Only one small pocket of diamondbacks remains in this area; three other populations have disappeared. The snakes aren’t reproducing regularly because there aren’t enough rabbits (their primary menu item) to keep them in good condition, and genetic work indicates inbreeding. But on the upside, the team has learned more about what the snakes need. The habitat should be burned every few years to keep the canopy open (historically, Morrison tells me, these savannas would have frequently burned from naturally started fires), and tree stumps should be left for burrows—knowledge that the U.S. Forest Service has begun implementing. “Now we know where they are, where they’re not, and we are figuring out why,” says Jeff Holmes, ARC’s executive director. “The next steps will be to figure out how to get them more resources, and to use our knowledge of what works here to create more habitat like it.” 

photo: Blake Shorter
The team in the Francis Marion after Wando’s release.

Later, long after Wando has disappeared into the brush and we have paid visits to two more eastern diamondbacks (a sun-bathing, digesting Bocephus, and Ruby Jean, who was tucked under a pine stump), the group unwinds over bourbon on the porch at a nearby Airbnb. “What do you wish people knew about diamondbacks?” I ask. Everyone chimes in:

“That like our families, ecosystems are full of individuals we might not want to bump into, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t an important part of our history, culture, and dynamic.”

“That diamondbacks have no interest in hurting you.”

“That we don’t have the right to tell them they can’t be here.”

“That they are the largest and most beautiful rattlesnake in the world.”

“That they’re representative of our land, and we should be proud to have them.”

“That if we don’t fight like hell, we could lose them.” 

photo: Blake Shorter
A glimpse of Bocephus as he slithers away.

Learn more about the Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy and ways to support the organization’s efforts here.