|The Western Diamondback is the most common venomous snake in the Apache Junction/Gold Canyon area.|
February 25, 2013 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.
Spring is here, with temperatures climbing toward 100 degees already in March. Reptiles, meaning most cold-blooded animals, become very active when temperatures soar into the nineties. When it warms up in the spring it is wise to keep a keen eye open for rattlesnakes.
August and September are traditionally the most active months for rattlesnakes on the Sonoran Desert at elevations below 4,000 feet. Reptiles coming out of hibernation begin the search for food. In late fall when temperatures drop below seventy-eight degrees, reptiles begin to prepare for hibernation.
I have lived in the Sonoran Desert for many years and have encountered hundreds of rattlesnakes. Under most conditions a rattlesnake is very difficult to spot unless it is disturbed and moves. Rattlesnakes generally rattle before they move, but if the truth were really known, most people who walk or hike in the desert will walk by ten snakes for every one that they see.
A rattlesnake can be identified by the triangular-shape of its head and the rattle on its tail. A closer examination will reveal an elliptical-shaped pupil in its eye. This trait is common to poisonous snakes in the Sonoran Desert. All rattlesnakes will have a pit organ near the nostril orifice.
Rattlesnakes come in a variety of colors and patterns. Snakes found in our area will have rings around their tails above the rattles. The color of these rings will alternate between black and white in various shades and the visibility of these rings will depend on the species. The Western Diamond Back rattler’s rings are very pronounced and stand out, whereas the rings on an Arizona Black are not very visible because of the blending of the rings. Occasionally, a rattlesnake will lose it’s rattles. When this occurs, the difficulty of identification increases.
Rattlesnakes are ectothermic vertebrates (cold-blooded animals), meaning they lack an appropriate physiological mechanism for maintaining body temperature. All cold-blooded animals are at the mercy of their environment. Air and ground temperatures dramatically affect the environment of reptiles. This condition directly affects their daily rhythm of activity and their habitat.
There are six species of rattlesnakes in our area, including the Western Diamond Back (Crotalus atrox), Mohave (Crotalus scutulatus), Arizona Black (Crotalus vidiris), Black-Tailed (Crotalus molossos), Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes), and the Tiger (Crotalus tigris). These animals have a very highly developed mechanism of injecting venom, therefore making them very successful predators. A rattlesnake’s diet is composed mostly of small rodents.
Reptiles, including rattlesnakes, like cool shady spots during the spring, summer and fall months. During the winter months rattlesnakes generally go underground and hibernate. They usually choose caves or old mine tunnels. Occasionally dens of rattlesnakes have been accidentally uncovered by construction equipment and hundreds of rattlesnakes are found at one time.
Rattlesnakes have been known to come out of hibernation if temperatures warm to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The functioning temperature for a rattlesnake is 72 to 78 degrees and it’s effective temperature is 82 to 96 degrees. The effective temperature is the temperature at which the snake moves about and hunts for prey. Direct exposure to heat or sunlight will kill a rattlesnake in about 10 to 15 minutes.
You might say rattlesnake season in the lower Sonoran Desert is anytime temperatures rise above 72 degrees. Rattlesnakes are most commonly sighted from the first of April until about the middle of October. These animals are primarily nocturnal and prefer the hours after sundown and before sunrise. Most rattlesnake victims are bitten ½ hour before sundown and up to two hours after sundown. It is estimated that 72% of all bites occur during this period.
There are some interesting facts about rattlesnakes. The oldest known rattlesnake in captivity, a Western Diamond Back, was age 30 years and 7 months. The largest rattlesnake officially recorded was an Eastern Diamond Back (Crotalus adamatus) at 7 feet 4 inches long. The largest Western Diamondback was measured live at 6 feet 8 inches. There have been many wild claims about ten to fifteen-foot rattlesnakes, but usually these are snakes were measured after death and their skin had been stretched. The average distance a rattlesnake can strike and effectively inject venom is one-third of its body length.
Some 80% of all rattlesnake bites are the result of carelessness or the handling of rattlesnakes by older juveniles or young adults. It is now estimated some 20% of rattlesnake bites are accidental or legitimate. About 15% of rattlesnake bites are dry socket bites, meaning no venom was injected into the victim.
There are several signs and symptoms of envenomization. First, there will be fang marks. These fang marks can be singular, dual or even a scratch. Fang marks are generally a very small puncture wound and a burning sensation usually follows the injection of venom by the reptile.
A metallic or rubbery taste in the mouth often follows a bite, but not always. The tingling of the tongue or numbness can also occur. If a rattlesnake has injected venom into its victim, local swelling will occur within ten minutes. The amount of envenomization is generally indicated by the severity of edema or swelling at fang puncture site. Nausea and weakness is often associated with snakebite.
Black or blue discoloration will generally appear near the site of envenomization after three to six hours. Every snake bite victim should be treated for shock, which is a greater threat to the victim of snakebite than the venom.
Call 911 immediately; snakebite is a medical emergency. If medical help is several hours away the following treatment is recommended. Calm and reassure the victim, decrease the movement of the limb. Identify the snake if it is possible without further risk of another bite. It is not recommended to use a constricting band or tourniquet unless you are a medical professional. Many snakebite victims have come into emergency rooms with a constricting band, such as shoelace, completely obliterated by edema or swelling. It is extremely important to move the victim to a medical facility without delay.
Of course, it is best to prevent rattlesnake bite. When walking in the desert or in any area known for reptile habitation, always look where you step, or place your foot, or feet (caution should always be used at night, late evening, and early morning). Always look where you are placing your hands or fingers. Use extreme caution before placing your hands where you can not see what you are touching. Always look before sitting down, especially around or near boulders or brush. Think before defecating or urinating in the outdoors.
I have observed a variety of bites during the past fifty years that resulted from total lack of common sense. Small children must be closely supervised at all times in areas of possible snake infestation or inhabitation.
If you and your family observe these basic rules you should be safe from snakebite. As urbanization continues at the desert edge in Arizona the threat if snakebite is always a reality.
I would like to thank Jude McNally and his staff, Arizona Poison Control Center, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, and Dr. Findlay E. Russell and his enormously valuable resource "Snake Venom Poisoning" printed by Scholium International, Inc. Great Neck, New York 11021 Note: This book is a physician’s desk reference for snake venom poisoning.
For information call Arizona Poison Control System 1-800-362-0101. For snake removal in Apache Junction call Apache Junction Fire District at 982-4440.
Editor’s note: Tom Kollenborn directed the Snake Alert program for the Apache Junction Unified School District for seventeen years. He attended workshops and worked closely with the University of Arizona Poison Control Center and Medical Center.