We spoke to snake expert Nick Hanna on Yellowstone Season 4’s fantastic shock death, which he says is “certainly within the realm of possibility.” If “all the stars align,” that is.
Nicholas Hanna is Nashville Zoo’s Area Supervisor of Herpetology, and a fantastic resource when it comes to all things reptiles and amphibians. He’s particularly knowledgeable with snakes, such as the Western diamondback rattler that Rip Wheeler (Cole Hauser) unleashed on an unsuspecting Roarke Morris (Josh Holloway). It’s a brilliant scene and one of the best death’s Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan has conjured. But how close to reality is it? Montana, after all, is only home to one venomous snake species: the prairie rattlesnake.
Yet at Season 4, Episode 1’s end, Rip approaches Roarke while the Market Equities villain is fly-fishing, his favorite peaceful pastime. His angling goes from peaceful to deadly real quick, however, as Rip flings a diamondback rattlesnake from his cooler out onto Roarke’s face. The viper latches on, and in less than a minute-and-a-half, Roarke is lying dead in the forest; foaming from the mouth as Rip presses his boot into his chest.
Rips and Roarkes and Rattlesnakes, Oh My
Let’s start by saying a man of Rip’s character could easily procure a Western diamondback in Montana. But is Roarke’s resulting death a possibility – or even slightly realistic – for a Western rattler’s bite?
“Rattlesnakes are vipers, and they’re in the pit viper category,” Hanna begins. This is crucial, he says, as most rattlesnakes possess venom that is primarily hemotoxic, which means it attacks your tissues.
“Whereas lapids, which are your coral snakes, cobras and other species, possess venom that is often primarily neurotoxic. Their venom usually attacks your nervous system.”
Typically, Hanna cites, neurotoxic venoms are responsible for deaths like the one we see in Yellowstone Season 4’s premiere. And some pit vipers, like the Eastern diamondback, do hold venom that could cause exactly what see in Yellowstone. Roarke dies a quick, suffocating death. He’s seizing up, foaming at the mouth, and stops breathings pretty quick. It’s dramatized for effect, sure, but this “suffocating” manner of death isn’t consistent with the Western diamondback rattlesnake. Unless…
Roarke’s Death Depends on Envenomation
“The route of death with neurotoxic venom is usually asphyxiation. It shuts down your body pretty quick,” Hanna explains. “Your lungs stop working and your whole body shuts down. Whereas rattlesnake venom,” he says, “as a hemotoxic venom just starts to degrade your tissue. So it usually takes a while for you to die.”
“The length of time it takes for you to die all depends on how everyone’s individual body. Every body copes differently; is able to handle toxins differently,” Hanna cites.
Like a bee sting, every human will have a different reaction to rattlesnake venom. Some might see extensive tissue damage within a matter of thirty minutes. Others, Hanna says, might only swell up and experience extreme discomfort.
Regardless of stature, however, “Everyone is going to need to receive antivenom for a rattlesnake envenomation,” where the snake injects a large amount. But as Hanna explains, “20% to 30% of bites are dry bites, and it is better for these people not to get antivenom.”
A dry bite is exactly what it sounds like, too. “Pit vipers, to some degree, can even control the amount of venom they inject,” Nick adds. “You can get a ‘dry bite’ where they don’t inject any venom at all. Venom is produced to procure food, not necessarily for defensive purposes. Metabolically, it takes a lot of energy for the snake to produce that resource. They’re not going to want to use it on something they can’t eat.”
With a small amount of venom injected, “You would not die within a minute or so,” Hanna continues. “Even somebody who’s highly susceptible to it. It just takes a lot longer to work on your body than a neurotoxin,” he says of the Yellowstone fatality.
But this leads us to where the show may have gotten it right.
A Highly Potent Rattlesnake Bite to the Face…
As Yellowstone fans will note, Roarke Morris was bitten in one of the most unfortunate places: his face. The rattlesnake latches onto his cheekbone and stays attached for several seconds; long enough to secrete a big batch of venom. This does make a difference, Hanna says, for the “route” in which the toxin travels.
“That does play a role, because it’s taken up through your bloodstream. And that’s going to affect how quickly its routing through your body, for sure. If I had a choice, I’d rather be bitten on an appendage than on the face,” he laughs. Though “not at all” is certainly the preference for any Outsider.
And the result of a high-envenomation to the face? Hanna says, outright, that “a Western diamondback bite to the head or neck where the snake injected a significant amount of venom would likely be fatal with or without antivenom.”
The key when it comes to hemotoxic venoms is typically your heart. It’s going to cause damage to your facial tissues first, but enough Western diamondback envenomation this close to the brain is going to prove your doom.
“First, you’re going to start swelling up pretty quick and experiencing a whole lot of pain,” Hanna says. “A whole lot of swelling around where you’re bitten.” The amount of venom is directly responsible for what comes next. Get enough of it, and you’re sure to meet Roarke Morris’ fate.
‘It’s Kind of a ‘Perfect Case Scenario’ For That to Take Place the Way It Does in ‘Yellowstone’
This does, however, depend on a wildly specific freak incident taking place. Hanna has watched a few episodes of Yellowstone himself and is typically a fan of their portrayal of wildlife. But there’s no denying “It’d be kind of hard to get bit with a snake being thrown on your face,” he laughs. “While they are highly coordinated, they’re probably more freaked out than you are. Especially being thrown through the air. But hey, it could happen. It could definitely happen. But it’s kind of a ‘perfect case scenario’ for that to take place the way it does in Yellowstone.”
In short: “All the stars would have to line up” for a rattlesnake to be flung from a cooler and latch onto your face, and then inject enough venom for you to go down quickly. “It’s certainly in the realm of possibility,” Nashville Zoo’s Nick Hanna concludes, “but again, only in that perfect case scenario.”
So once again, we must congratulate Rip Wheeler on orchestrating the perfect murder.