Just as mice, ground squirrels and other small mammals are emerging from their long winter’s nap, rattlesnakes are also emerging to soak up the sun, mate and pursue their favorite prey. With the onset of warmer weather, it’s important to be aware of rattlesnakes when you’re hiking in the southwest.
Depending on whom you talk to, Arizona has about 17 species and subspecies of rattlesnakes, more than any other state. (FYI, every state in the contiguous U.S. has at least one species of rattlesnake).
The Grand Canyon even has its very own subspecies, the Grand Canyon rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis abyssus. Does that mean you’ll see a rattler the next time you go on a hike? Probably not, since rattlesnakes are shy, secretive reptiles.
However, an understanding of rattlesnakes and an awareness of their habitat when hiking may decrease any surprise encounter with these fascinating creatures and help us coexist with the critters of the desert.
In my 25 years of hiking the canyons of the southwest, I have encountered a little over a dozen rattlers. Five of those were in the Grand Canyon. Other than one very irritated rattler in the middle of the Tanner Trail, and the one my husband almost stepped on in the southern California coastal mountains, they didn’t even rattle, much less strike.
Most, like the two curled up side-by-side under a rock in Olo Canyon, or the six babies intertwined in an unexcavated kiva at Yucca House pueblo, were cold, quiet, and probably wished I would go away. And go away I did, appreciating the reptile and respecting its home. Despite our inbred fear of snakes, rattlesnakes are creatures we should all get to know better – from a respectable distance.
Most people know that rattlesnakes are pit vipers – venomous snakes with hollow fangs connected to a venom gland. When the snake strikes, the venom is ejected into the victim through the fang.
Most rattlers also have the namesake tail that produces a vibrating rattle when the reptile is frightened or agitated. What many people don’t know is that rattlesnakes are a highly specialized animal that fits in perfectly with its hostile environment, and a creature that deserves a lot of respect.
If you encounter a rattlesnake on your journeys, be assured that he was aware of you long before you were aware of him. Rattlesnakes can “see” heat. Sensory organs in their upper jaw, behind their nostril, can detect differences in temperatures several yards away. While mostly helpful for nocturnal hunting, heat vision also enables the snake to detect predator from prey. A large, lumbering human, who gives off a large heat image, may be a signal to the snake that it is a non-prey animal, while a smaller heat image, such as that of a mouse, indicates a meal is nearby.
Unlike many snakes, rattlesnakes give birth to live young. Eggs are kept inside the mother’s body until hatched, when she may deliver up to a dozen babies. Armed with venom and dangerous from birth, baby rattlers pose an additional threat, as they don’t have developed rattles and are therefore unable to warn an intruder of their presence.
The snake’s notorious rattle is made of keratin, the same material as your fingernails. Like fingernails, rattles break with age and abuse, and another segment is added on each time a snake sheds its skin. Since molting may occur several times a year, you can’t tell a snake’s age by the length of its rattle.
Rattlesnakes prey on mice, ground squirrels, rats and other animals that can cause plant damage, carry disease and are a general nuisance to humans and crops.
Unlike the horror stories of old, rattlesnakes do not seek out humans as prey. Most snakebites occur when people harass or try to capture snakes. By leaving them alone, you can greatly minimize your chance of being bitten.
So what precautions should you take when wandering through snake country? First, assume that all of Arizona’s urban, suburban and wilderness trails are in snake country. With that in mind, don’t go for a hike wearing sandals. Know where you put your hands and your feet. Before stepping over a large rock or log, look on the other side to see if a snake is resting in its shade. Before putting your hand on a rock to climb a ledge or retrieve your water bottle, check to see if it’s occupied by a snoozing rattler. Be especially careful when hiking at night, since snakes are nocturnal in the summer months. Hike quietly so you can hear a rattler’s warning buzz.
Wear long pants when you’re hiking in brushy areas such as sagebrush and greasewood. These are favorite resting places for rattlesnakes during the heat of the day. Better still, stick to open areas and trails where snakes are easily spotted.
If you do hear that infamous buzz, freeze in your tracks until you can determine the location of the snake. Once you know where he is, back away slowly and carefully until you are well out of his strike range, a distance up to one third of the snake’s body length. Allow the snake a path of escape, either to a bush, his den or just away from you. If he allows, observe the snake from a respectable distance, then allow him to go about his business. Chances are he’ll slither away to the comfort of a rock crevice or cool hole in the ground.
Despite their bad rap, rattlesnakes are awesome creatures that have adapted specialized mechanisms to allow them to live and flourish in a very inhospitable environment.
If you are lucky enough to encounter a rattlesnake, give them the respect they deserve. They’ll appreciate your understanding.
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