Saturday, July 2, 2016

Let's talk about Rattlesnakes

On June 28th, it was reported that there has been a record number of rattlesnakes making their way into yards due to the drought that we've experienced here in California over the last few years.

Los Angeles television station CBSLA reported that Southern California is becoming known for its sun, sand, and snakes. And thanks to our ongoing drought, rattlesnakes are making their way out of the hills and into our yards in record numbers.

"They’re out in full force right now," said Bo Slyapich, who is known as the "Rattlesnake Wrangler" who specializes in snake removal, relocation, and prevention. Mr. Slyapich has been working with snakes for more than 50 years and says homeowners are giving the rattlers exactly what they are looking for.

Mr. Slyapich said, "If you build it. they will come. Just because you build them a cave, leave the door open, garage door open, put a cement pond in the backyard, make it green all around, maybe throw some mice and rats around. They love us humans."

He suggests prevention measures such as "building a box around your property, installing one-quarter-inch fencing around the entire perimeter, and reducing landscaping." He also recommends "checking seals, and bringing bushes up off the ground. In essence, eliminating all of the hiding places."

"By taking away shrubbery as much as you can, you take away the rodent, the food source, which eliminates the snakes," he said.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates there are about 800 rattlesnake bites every year, with one or two being fatal. These bites can also sting your wallet, potentially costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for anti-venom and treatment.

For those who are bitten, Mr. Slyapich warns against cutting, biting, and sucking the venom, saying, "That’s Hollywood. We're not on a wagon train six weeks from civilization, OK? Dial 911. Keep it simple, tell them 'I’ve been bit by a rattlesnake.'"

He also reminds us to "respect the rattler." He said if you see a rattlesnake, just back away from it.

He said, it is "Real simple: rattlesnakes don’t want to have anything to do with us, they won’t approach us, they will not come after us, they do not fly, leap or jump,” he said. “We are bigger. They are smaller. They will protect themselves."

As for its rattle, although many snakes have the tail vibrating behavior, rattlesnakes possess a unique rattle that others don't. Now that summer is here, let's talk about how rattlesnakes are out and about. And how they use their rattles as a warning when "they" feel threatened. 

Yes, if you hear their rattle. You have been duly warned!

The problem today is urban sprawl. We are now building more and more developments on or near their habitats. It's the same reason that more coyote and mountain lions, and other critters are being seen in residential areas, we are now building homes where they live. And yes, that's no different in the case of rattlesnakes.

Occupations at risk of contact is really anyone working outside. But even though that's the case, it is said that the greatest danger to humans from rattlesnakes is that small children may be struck while rolling and tumbling in the grass.

Though the California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates there are about 800 rattlesnake bites every year, with one or two being fatal, on the overall there are about 1,000 people bitten and less than a dozen people die from rattlesnake venom each year in the entire United States.

While that is great news in as far as the odds goes of getting bit, especially in a population of millions of people, but how many of those millions work outside or live in an area where rattlers are more plentiful. Yes, when taking in those factors, all of a sudden those "great odds" don't look that great anymore.

In residential areas, they may be found under bushes and here and there in all sorts of the hiding places. In the country you may find them sunning themselves near logs, on and around boulders, in the middle of deserted roads as well as other open areas.

Don't fool yourself thinking they would never be in your areas. Rattlesnakes are known to be found in all sorts of habitats including the mountains, prairies, deserts, towns, cities, and even on beaches.

For me, when I'm out pleasure riding, or out fishing, I try to keep my ears open and listen for their warning. I've found rattlers on dirt roads and when riding in areas with tall dry grass in the woods on a shaded path, and even in a building.

My first experience with rattlesnakes came many years ago when I was stationed in Camp Pendleton, located between Los Angeles and San Diego, California. Station there, I found that we Marines come in contact with them all the time -- but especially when out in the field on training. We were always advised to stay alert in the field and listen for their warnings.

Of course, there was that one day when we returned from the field and found a rattler in our barracks. It was obvious to all that it decided to get out of the scorching Southern California heat outside and find a nice cool spot on the cement floor in the corner of our Quonset hut.

I remember this when thinking about how rattlers seek out prey and comfort. The one we found in our barracks was nestled behind canvas seabags piled in a corner. After that happened, we started making sure we didn't give another one a home and started taking more precautions. It seems that's always the case. People will do what's needed after an incident already took place.

Known for their distinctive rattle at the end of the tail, all species of rattlesnakes can strike at amazing distances and catch their victims by complete surprise. Rattlesnakes are usually identified by their warning rattle -- a hiss or buzz -- made by the rattles at the tip of their tails.

A rattlesnake is born with a button, or rattler, and acquires a new rattle section each time it molts. Rattlesnakes also are distinguished by having rather flattened, triangular heads.

Rattlesnakes range from sea level to perhaps 11,000 feet in California and 14,000 feet in Mexico, although they are not abundant at the higher elevations. They are found throughout the Great Plains region and most of the United States, from deserts to dense forests and from sea level to fairly high mountains.

While I've seen them out "sunning" themselves, it is said that they need good cover so they can retreat from the sun. They are very common in rough terrain and wherever rodents are abundant.

Rattlesnakes are a truly American family of pit vipers and all but two of the existing 27 species are found in the U.S. or Mexico. Rattlesnakes belong to the pit viper family "Crotalidae" name because all possess visible loreal pits, or lateral heat sensory organs, between their eye and nostril on each side of their heads.

The facial pits enable rattlesnakes to seek out and strike, even in darkness, warm objects such as small animal prey, as well as larger animals that could be a threat. The vertically elliptical eye pupils, or "cat eyes," are also a characteristic of rattlesnakes.

Identifying a dead rattler whose rattles are missing can be done by looking at the snake's scales on the underside in the short region between the vent and the tip of the tail. If the scales are divided down the center, the snake is harmless. The scales on rattlesnakes are not divided.

Rattlesnakes come in a great variety of colors, depending on the species and stage of molt. Most rattlers are various shades of brown, tan, yellow, gray, black, chalky white, dull red and olive green. Many have diamond, chevron or blotched markings on their backs and sides.

There are Different Species

Rattlesnake species include Eastern Diamondbacks, Western Diamondbacks, Mojave Rattlesnakes, as well as the Sidewinder, Timber rattlers, Rock, and Pygmy rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes vary in size from the 18 inches of the Pygmy rattler to the 84 inches or more of the Eastern Diamondback.

The Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake is a species that inhabits the coastal areas of North and South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida including the Keys. They are found in pine woods, scrubs, palmettos or swamps. And yes, believe it or not, Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes are capable of swimming many miles out in the Gulf of Mexico to reach some of the islands off the Florida coast.

As stated before, the Eastern Diamondback can reach up to 84 inches which makes it the largest venomous species of Rattlesnake in North America. It has no natural enemies and is considered the top of the food chain. Experts say Eastern Diamondbacks can be quite irritable and readily defends itself if it feels threatened. I've heard they attack for no reason as with most rattlers.

As for more trivia regarding the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, believe it or not, back during the founding of our nation, the Eastern Diamondback was almost selected as the National Animal of the United States. Yes, there were some who wanted it as America's symbol instead of the American Bald Eagle.

As for the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, this very aggressive rattlesnake is found in California, Nevada, Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arkansas. Actually, it is very common over to find them throughout the West in grasslands, deserts, woodlands, and canyons.

The Western Diamondback is known to stand its ground and defend itself vigorously, the first step being when it coils and rattles. This species of rattlesnake is responsible for many bites and injects a large amount of venom when it does bite.

Although rattlesnake venom isn't as deadly as some other snakes in other parts of the world, the large volume of the injected venom makes rattlesnakes particularly dangerous. And yes, because of this, rattlesnakes are considered one of the most dangerous snakes in North America.

The sex of a rattlesnake is not easy to determine. Even though the tail of the rattlesnake, the distance between the vent and the rattles is quite short, it is much longer in males than in females of the same size.

Snakes never close their eyes, since they have no eyelids. They are deaf, but can detect vibrations. They have a good sense of smell and vision, and their forked tongues transport microscopic particles from the environment to sensory cells in pits at the roof of the mouth. A rattlesnake uses these pits to track prey it has struck and to gather information about its environment.

Snakes have a large number of ribs and vertebrae with ball-and-socket joints. Each rib is joined to one of the scales on the snake’s underside.

The snake accomplishes its smooth flowing glide by hooking the ground with its scales, which are then given a backward push from the ribs. Rattlesnakes often look much larger when seen live than after they have been killed.

This happens because their right lung extends almost the full length of the tubular body, and when the snakes inhale they can appear much fatter and more threatening. The expulsion of the air can produce a hiss.

Rattlesnakes, like other snakes, periodically shed their skin. When the new skin underneath is formed, the snake rubs its snout against a stone, twig, or rough surface until a hole is worn through.

After it works its head free, the snake contracts its muscles rhythmically, pushing, pulling and rubbing, until it can crawl out of the old skin, which peels off like an inverted stocking. Each molt produces a new rattle. Some rattles usually break off from older snakes. Even if no rattles have been lost, they do not indicate exact age because several rattles may be produced in one season.


Mature fangs generally are shed several times a season. They may become embedded in the prey and may even be swallowed with the prey. When one mature fang in a pair is lost, it will soon be replaced by another functional mature fang.

A series of developing fangs are located directly behind one another in the same sheath at the roof and outer tip of the mouth. If a newly replaced fang is artificially removed, it may require weeks or longer before another replacement will be fully effective. One fang can function while the other in the pair is being replaced.

Female rattlesnakes are "ovoviviparous." That is, they produce eggs that are retained, grow, and hatch internally. The young of most species of rattlesnakes are 6 to 8 inches when born. They are born with a single rattle or button, fangs, and venom.

They can strike within minutes of birth, but being so small, they are not very dangerous. Average broods consist of 5 to 12 young, but sometimes twice as many may be produced.


Rattlesnakes cannot spit venom, but the impact of a strike against an object can squeeze the venom gland, located in the roof of the mouth, and venom may be squirted. Their venom is "haemotoxic", which means that it "prevents blood from clotting and destroys tissue." The potent and haemotoxic venom causes great pain and damage to tissue and death.

When a rattlesnake strikes its prey or enemy, the paired fangs unfold from the roof of its mouth. Prior to the completion of the forward strike motion, the fangs become fully erect at the outer tip of the upper jaw.

The fangs are hollow and work like hypodermic needles to inject a modified saliva, the venom, into the prey. Rattlesnakes can regulate the amount of venom they inject when they strike.

Rattlesnakes usually see humans before humans see them, or they detect soil vibrations made by walking. They coil for protection, but they can strike only from a third to a half of their body length.

Rattlers rely on surprise to strike prey. Once a prey has been struck, but not killed, it is unlikely that it will be struck again. Experienced rodents and dogs can evade rattlesnake strikes.

Rattlesnakes may appear quite aggressive if exposed to warm sunshine. Since they have no effective cooling mechanism, they may die from heat stroke if kept in the sun on a hot day much longer than 15 or 20 minutes.

If a rattlesnake has just been killed by cutting off its head, it can still bare its fangs and bite. The heat sensory pits will still be functioning, and the warmth of a hand will activate the striking reflex.

The head cannot strike, but it can bite and inflict venom. The reflex no longer exists after a few minutes, or as long as an hour or more if it is cool, as rigor mortis sets in.

The venom, a toxic enzyme synthesized in the snake’s venom glands, causes tissue damage, as it tends to quickly tenderize its prey. When known to be abundant, rattlesnakes detract from the enjoyment of outdoor activities.

They say the human fear of rattlesnakes is much greater than the hazard, and death from a rattlesnake bite is rare and the chance of being bitten in the field is extremely small.

Cowboys and farmers can usually identify rattlesnake bites on people or on livestock without much difficulty, even if they did not witness the strike. A rattlesnake bite results in almost immediate swelling, darkening of tissue to a dark blue-black color, a tingling sensation, and nausea.

Bites will also reveal two fang marks in addition to other teeth marks, all snakes have teeth but only pit vipers have fangs too. Rattlesnakes often bite livestock on the nose or head as the animals attempt to investigate them.

Sheep, in particular, may crowd together in shaded areas near water during midday. As a consequence, they also frequently are bitten on the legs or lower body when pushed close to snakes. Fang marks and tissue discoloration that follows in the major blood vessels from the bite area are usually apparent on livestock that are bitten.

The best protection for humans when traveling in snake country is common sense in choosing protective foot and leg wear. When climbing, one should beware of putting a hand up over rocks.

Rattlesnakes might be waiting there for a rodent, and the warmth in a hand may cause the snake to strike reflexively. Care should be taken at night, when snakes are more active, and the chance of stepping on a snake is greater. Thankfully rattlesnakes try to avoid people.

Dial 911!

The best first aid for a venomous snake bite is to seek immediate medical care and to keep the victim calm, warm, and reassured. Do not drink alcohol or use ice, cold packs, or freon spray to treat the snake bite or cut the wound, as was once recommended.

If a victim of snake bite is several hours from a car and medical aid, apply a light constricting cloth or other band on the bitten limb, 2 to 4 inches from the bite and between bite and heart.

Make sure it is not as tight as a tourniquet. It should be easy to insert a finger under the band. Loosen it if swelling occurs. Apply suction at the wound for at least 3/4 of an hour by mouth if one has no mouth sores, or with a snake bite kit. But again, do so only if medical assistance is several hours away.

The causes of human death from rattlesnake venom are varied, but usually occur from extended hypotension and cardiopulmonary arrest. Usually within a few minutes after being struck the victim will experience pain and swelling at the wound site.

This information was compiled from various sources, and I hope it helps you.

Tom Correa