Less conspicuous than the pronghorn antelope and the golden eagle is an even more ancient inhabitant of the high plains and valleys of Wyoming, the prairie rattlesnake. Feared by many and respected by most, these pit vipers (so-called because of their heat-sensing facial pits, used to detect warm-bodied-prey) are common in the eastern two-thirds of the state in all but alpine habitats. During winter these snakes hibernate in underground dens for up to eight months. In spring they migrate away from the dens in search of food (typically rodents and other small mammals) and mates. Studies show that they move from the den in virtually a straight-line path covering perhaps several miles until they find a food source. They stay on their fixed-angle course by using the sun as a navigational aid. When the temperature cools in fall, the snakes return to the same den.The habitat around you no doubt contains many of these secretive and fascinating reptilian hunters, but there is really very little to fear. Though they are poisonous and seemingly hostile, evidence indicates the chances of being bitten are virtually nil, as long as the snake is not touched, provoked, or frightened. Since rattlesnakes are deaf and cannot actually hear rattling, this behavior is believed to be defensive. A rattling rattlesnake is simply trying to warn or drive off another creature it perceives to be a threat. If you encounter a prairie rattlesnake, give it plenty of room and you will be in no danger - it's probably more frightened than you are. Allow the snake to go on its way and hunt prey like its ancestors have done in this area for thousands and thousands of years. The prairie rattler may not earn your admiration, but it deserves respect as a fascinating and important element of Wyoming's wildlands.