Monday, April 22, 2002

Surviving a Desert Summer

April 22, 2002 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The Superstition Mountain region, like any other desert environment, can be extremely dangerous during the hot summer months to both a novice or the experienced veteran of the desert. A combination of high temperatures and a lack of water can often lead to tragic circumstances for hikers or those who become [disoriented]. It is recommended to always carry plenty of water no matter where you are going.

During these dry and hot summer months a simple mistake can lead to tragedy. There are two simple rules that can save a person’s life. One, always carry a sufficient supply of water when out in the desert. This should be a minimum of a gallon of water per person per day when temperatures exceed 100 degrees F.

The second rule is, always notify someone of where you are going and when you expect to return. These two simple rules can save yours or your loved one’s life.

Warm weather brings out numerous reptiles, insects and spiders from their winter habitat. A lack of precipitation brings mammals down from the mountains and out of the desert in search of water. Humans and wild animals do not mix well in an urban setting and wild mammals can expose humans to rabies.

We often erect security lights to protect the integrity of our property, but at the same time these lights attract thousands of insects at night. In turn, these insects attract bats and rodents. The rodents attract snakes, and often these snakes are rattlesnakes. Even though rattlesnakes are venomous, humans are probably more endangered by mammals because of rabies. We should use caution around all mammals and venomous animals in the desert. Any wild animal that allows a human close to it is a potential threat for rabies exposure. As is often the case, the most informed people are sometimes the season’s first victims because of their carelessness.

Rattlesnakes are ectothermic vertebrates (cold-blooded animals), meaning they lack an appropriate physiological mechanism for maintaining body temperature. This condition directly affects their daily rhythm of activity and their habitat.

There are six species of rattlesnake in our area. These include the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Mohave Rattlesnake, Arizona Black Tail Rattlesnake, Sidewinder, Tiger Rattlesnake and the Arizona Black Rattlesnake. These animals have a very highly developed method of injecting venom therefore making the successful predators [in] the desert. Rattlesnakes prey primarily on small rodents.

If we follow three basic rules it is almost impossible to be bitten by a rattlesnake. Rule one, always watch where you put your hands; rule two, watch where you put your feet, and rule three; watch where you sit down.

Reptiles, including rattlesnakes, like cool shady spots during the spring, summer and fall months. During the winter months the snakes generally move underground where there is a constant temperature. Rattlesnakes are primarily nocturnal. Most rattlesnake bites involving humans occur from ½ hour before sundown and 2 hours after sundown. It is reported 72% of all bites occur during this period.

Rattlesnakes prefer live food. Eighty-four percent of the diet of rattlesnakes consists of small rodents. Rattlesnakes, when feeding o rodents, are the terminal point for dangerous diseases spread by rodents to humans. Rattlesnakes and other species of snakes are an important barrier between humans and diseases like rabies.

Rattlesnakes can be seen twelve months a year in the lower Sonoran Desert regions of the Southwest. Anytime temperatures exceed 72 degrees F rattlesnakes can become active.

The Western Diamondback can grow to six feet long and some have lived for thirty years in captivity. The rattlesnake is a true survivor, like a coyote.

[Part II – April 22]

Other dangerous creatures of the desert include the Black Widow Spider (Latrodectus mactans) which is quite common in our area. The spider can be found around the home in cool, damp and dark areas which are seldom disturbed. The bite of the Black Widow can be very serious, but seldom fatal. The spider is not aggressive by nature and bites human beings only when prevented from escaping and when in contact with the human body.

The Black Widow is easily identified by [its] ball-shaped abdomen and long spine-like legs. The female has a red hourglass on the underside of her abdomen. It is always advisable to see a physician if bitten by a Black Widow spider.

Another venomous animal of the desert is the scorpion. There are more than 20 species of scorpions found in the American Southwest. There are two closely related species that are dangerous to children. They can also be dangerous to adults in a rundown condition. These scorpions are Centruroides sculpuratus and the Centruroides gertschi. Both of these species are extremely small, usually less than three inches in length. Both species are very slender with thin tail segments. The key to identification of these species is the tiny notch called the subicular tooth just in front of the stinging spine.

The C. Sculpturatus is straw-colored and common to the desert areas. The C. gertschi is more common to the grasslands of the Southwest and not the desert regions. Scorpions are often found under rocks, wood, tree bark, and in and around debris that has set awhile. One of the most common areas for the C. sculpturatus is the bark of the Cottonwood tree (Fremonti populus). The scorpion easily acclimates to houses and is often found associated with moisture in homes.

We have just touched on a few of the things associated with living in the desert. Most important is to be aware that we are living in the habitat of other animals that were here long before human beings, but if we use [our] common sense with heat, animals, fire and water, there is no need to live in fear of the desert.

There are many other creatures I did not mention in this article. If you are interested in more information, check out the Apache Junction [Public] Library on North Idaho Road in Apache Junction.

Editor’s note: For bee and snake removal contact the Apache Junction Fire District at 480-982-4440.