An Essay from 1989

Describing the sound of an alarmed rattlesnake is like trying to describe the Grand Canyon. Words fail, the total experience transcends language. Wind blowing through dry leaves…yea, sort of. A giant cicada buzzing….. maybe. The rapid clicking of dry castanets…..getting closer. Charles Shaw probably says it best in his book, Snakes of the American West. “It starts like the clicking of dried bones, grows in intensity and volume until the individual clicks are a strident blur, runs together up and down the scale with a sound like escaping steam, yet with that dried-bones effect still present, and finally subsides into a series of individual clicks.”

If you hear something that you “think” is a rattlesnake, then it probably isn’t. Because when a rattlesnake rattles, every cell in your body becomes totally alert. You respond on a gut level, there is no thinking is involved. You are suddenly aware of every sensation, movement and activity all around you. Danger is near. This can be very disconcerting if you cannot identify from which direction the sound came. Years after this has happened to me I can still recall in intimate detail every aspect of the moment.

Recently in the East Mojave my wife spied a beautiful desert lily in full flower. As she approached the lily to admire it, she suddenly leaped with a quick scream. In a surprisingly calm voice she announced to the group that she had just scared a Mojave Green rattlesnake. This beautiful reptile is the one I nightmare about prior to taking a group into the East Mojave. Mojave greens are one of the most dangerous animals that I routinely encounter on my nature wanderings (and this includes trips into the Amazon Basin, jungles of central America and snorkeling around sharks).

This rattlesnake has extra potent venom, a neurotoxin similar to that of cobras. It is the second most dangerous snake in North America, after the large and aggressive timber rattler. There are only four hospitals that stock the anti-toxin for the Mojave Green and you must be treated within 12- 16 hours of being bitten or you are history.

But of course most encounters that people have with snakes, venomous or otherwise, are similar to the one that Laurie had. Snakes want nothing to do with humans; they simply want to avoid us. The reverse is generally also true. Most people have negative feelings about all snakes. Ever since the Garden of Eden snakes have had a bad reputation.

While there are many deadly snakes in the world only one group has rattles. The commonly accepted explanation for this is that the rattle evolved on the Great Plains of North America as a warning to large, hoofed animals such as bison to not step on and accidentally kill rattlesnakes. This way both the rattlesnake and the bison can continue to live another day. Of course this survival mechanism has backfired for the rattlesnake in the case of humans, because now rattlesnakes can be more easily found and killed.

The venom of rattlesnakes is actually highly modified saliva that the snakes use to kill their prey, primarily rodents. Rattlesnakes find their quarry with specialized infrared receptors that allow them to actually “see” the heat from the warm-blooded mammals. They strike and inject just the right amount of poison and then they wait for the animal to die before they swallow them.

About 25% of rattlesnake bites on humans have no venom injected. Last week a fellow near Tomales was struck by our local species, the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. He required little treatment, the bite may have been dry. In fact most healthy adults bitten by rattlesnakes can survive with no medical attention. For the elderly and children the survival rate is somewhat lower.

In over 15 years of tramping all over Marin County I have only seen four or five rattlesnakes, all of these were near the Mountain Theatre on the south-facing slope of Mt. Tam. It may be a bit too cool along the coast for rattlesnakes, although occasionally some come down off the mountain into Stinson Beach. Just remember that old Colonial flag motto, “Don’t Tread on Me” and you’ll be safe hiking the trails of Marin and even the Mojave Desert.

Click here: Footloose Forays – for complete details of educational trips into the natural world personally directed and guided by Michael Ellis.



Posted on

August 5, 2009