A paper was lately read before the Boston Society or Natural History, irom Dr. W. J. Burnett, on the character of the rattlesnake. The doctor had been experimenting on two or three specimens of this animal, and announces the discovery of numerous embryo poison fangs in the jaws of the snake, immediately behind the outward fangs. The use of these hidden weapons of destruction appears to be to supply the place of tLe biting fangs ol the serpent when they get broken off or worn out in service. It also appears that the long fangs (two in number) which are used in inflicting the bite of the rattlesnake, are naturally shed every few years, when they are not injured by accident or wear, and the reserve fangs are sufficiently numerous to meet the worst emergencies. From minute micro-scop al examination of the structure of these teeth, Dr. B. concludes that there are two canals in each fang, only one of which conveys the poison to the wound. Respecting the character of the poison itself, the doctor remarks as follows:— " There is good reason for the belief that its action is the same upon all living things, vegetables as well as animals. It is even just as fatal to the snake itself, as to other animals, for Dr. Dearing informed me that one of his specimens, after being irritated and annoyed in its cage, in moving suddenly, accidentally struck one of its fangs into his own body, it soon rolled over and died, as any other animal would have done. Here then, we have the remarkable, and perhaps unique philosophical fact, of a liquid secreted directly from the blood, Which proves deadly when introduced into the very source (the blood) from which it was derived !" In order to scrutinize by the aid of the microscope the operation of this deadly agent on the blood, Dr. Burnett stupified one of the fiercest of his snakes by dropping chloroform upon his head. " Twenty-five or thirty drops being allowed to fall on his head, one slowly after the other, the sound of his rattle gradually died away, and in a few minutes he was wholly under this agent. He was then adroitly seized behind the jaws with the thumb and fore-finger, and dragged from the cage and al- lowed to partially resuscitate; in this state a second person held his tail to prevent his coiling around the arm of the first, while a third opened his mouth, and with a pair of forceps, pressed the fang upward, causing a flow of poison which was received on the end of the scalpel. The snake was then returned into the cage. Blood was then extracted from a finger, for close microscopal examination. The smallest quantity of the poison being presented to the blood between the glasses, a change was immediately perceived—the corpuscles ceased to runand pile together, and remained stagnant without any special alteration of structure.— The whole appearance was as though the vitality of the.blood had been suddenly destroyed, exactly as in death from lightning. This agrees also with another experiment performed on a fowl, where the whole mass of the blood appeared quite liquid, and having kittle coagulable power." Dr. Burnett is of the opinion that the physiological action of the poison ot the rattlesnake in animals is that of a most powerful sedative, acting through the blood on the nervous centres. He supports this position by the remarkable fact ttiat its full and complete antidotes are the most active stimulants; .and of these alcohol (commonly in the form of rum or whiskey) is the first. This remedy is well known at the South, and there are some twenty-five authentic cases on record proving that a person suffering from the bite of a rattlesnake may drink from one to two quarts of clear brandy without feeling the slightest tendency lo intoxication, and eventually recover.
This article was originally published with the title "About Snakes" in Scientific American 8, 36, 288 (May 1853)