One of the most commonly-seen snakes in semi-urban areas in Arizona is also one of the most confusing. It’s brown, it’s big, it’s bad (if you ask its opinion, that is) and it’s … a Bullsnake? Gophersnake? Are those the same thing? Not really. If you live in Arizona telling the difference between a Gophersnake and a Bullsnake is easy:
Bullsnakes do not live in Arizona. All of the snakes that seem to be interchangeably called either Gophersnake or Bullsnake are all Gophersnakes. In Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties (where most of us live), they are all Sonoran Gophersnakes.
Bullsnakes and Gophersnakes are both real snakes, subspecies of the Gophersnake species Pituophis catenifer. In Arizona, we have two subspecies of Pituophis catenifer: the Sonoran Gophersnake, Pituophis catenifer affinis, and the Great Basin Gophersnake, Pituophis catenifer deserticola. What you do not see in this list of Arizona subspecies, however, is Pituophis catenifer sayi … the Bullsnake. And even more confusing, since sayi is a subspecies of the larger Gophersnake species, that means that while some Gophersnakes are also Bullsnakes, all Bullsnakes are also Gophersnakes. Whew.
The real Bullsnakes live throughout the central U.S., up into Canada, and down into Mexico. In the Southwest, their range ends to the West as it intergrades with Sonoran Gophersnakes in West Texas and eastern New Mexico. A great map of this distribution can be found here.
Is this that important? For most people, not really. While calling a Sonoran Gophersnake a Bullsnake is incorrect, the intent and general description of the snake and what it does are the same. If someone says they see a Bullsnake on their patio, it’s definitely not a Bullsnake, but I do know exactly what they are talking about. In this way the common name still does its job in providing a general description of what it is, and also highlights the difference in utility between use of common names and the more precise latin nomenclature.
No. Use your pool noodles to noodle as much as you can noodle. Though some recent news may make it seem as if rattlesnakes and pool noodles have something to do with one another, it’s really a another mix of slow-news-day meets non-issue.
Pool toys stacked in the corner, or in this case, against a block wall, can create a shaded, damp area that is much cooler than the surrounding exposed yard. This can be very attractive to rattlesnakes trying to escape the summer heat, especially when the pool toys are routinely stored in the same spot, and not often used. While a snake being actually inside of a pool noodle isn’t most likely a very common scenario, rattlesnakes using pool toys and being found under them is very common and one of our go-to spots whenever we do a property inspection, looking for the kinds of places that rattlesnakes are found in the yard.
What you can do to avoid rattlesnakes showing up near your noodles:
Keep your pool toys up off the ground, or in a box
Store them in a place that can get hot, and avoid areas alongside the home that receive more shade than other areas
If you don’t have a box or can’t keep them up off the ground, change the location of where you store them each time you use them.
Make sure to never store pool toys in an area where rodents are digging holes, or access to other cover exists
Keep pool toys away from other pool equipment, like the pump area, and especially from decorative rock features and plants
Mostly, though, take the story with a grain of salt, and don’t let it stop you from enjoying the pool. There are some aspects of the story that seem a little bit fishy, like a “very large” rattlesnake being in a space only a little larger than an inch in diameter, and the report of other snakes being in there, too. If it were mid-July, I can see how a rattlesnake could possibly be giving birth to other rattlesnakes in something like a pool noodle, but this early in the year, it’s very unlikely. I have personally found a mother Western Diamondback Rattlesnake with her newborn babies in pool toys several times, but if you do as the items above suggest, it shouldn’t be something to worry about at your house. Store this one in your mental list of things to worry about somewhere between “wiggly wheel on a shopping cart” and “I asked for no mayo and this has mayo on it”.
Rattlesnake peak-activity is just around the corner, and we’re all about to see a lot of reports of snake sightings on Arizona trails. Almost as common are declarations like “that’s it for hiking for me this year!”. That’s unfortunate, since seeing rattlesnakes in Arizona’s natural areas is one of the most amazing things about this state. I can imagine that not everyone feels this way, but not to worry … even for people who are deathly afraid of snakes, there’s really not much to worry about. Having had about every type of rattlesnake encounter a person can over years of working professionally with rattlesnakes in wild settings, here’s what you need to know to stay safe, fang-free, and enjoy Arizona’s amazing trails. Stay safe and keep hiking!
If I miss anything or you have a specific question that should be answered, post it in comments and I’ll edit/answer in the blog.
1. Understand what “aggressive” means.
This is a perspective shift that can help hikers stay safe by just having reasonable expectations about what actually happens when you run into a rattlesnake out there. A common question we are asked is “which rattlesnake is most aggressive?”, and the answer, is no rattlesnake is aggressive!When they’re threatened, however, they can quickly become defensive. That might sound like word games, but they mean completely different things when describing how a snake behaves. An aggressive animal is the instigator, it attacks without provocation and seeks interaction. A defensive animal avoids confrontation, but will defend itself and try its best to prevent its early demise.
The latter more accurately describes rattlesnakes, and how they respond to hikers. When a hiker sees a rattlesnake on a trail (or hears it!) buzzing away and standing tall, this is not a sign that it’s about to attack. A rattle is not a battle cry! It’s just a warning, saying “hey, just letting you know I’m here, so let’s not meet!” It’s actually quite considerate if you think about it.
Rattlesnakes can’t eat us, have no reason to attack us, and really, they have no idea what we are. If rattlesnakes were actually aggressive, not one of us would survive a hike in any natural area in Arizona, and I’d certainly be dead several times over. Fortunately, they’re not, and you can breathe a sigh of relief that personal stories about rattlesnakes attacking unprovoked are very overblown.
Here’s a video I took in early 2018 at a rattlesnake den in Cave Creek, Arizona, that shows their behavior when they’re being scared. Even though I was pretty close to them, I was never in any danger. This is the side of rattlesnakes most people never hear about, and doesn’t make for dramatic stories at the watercooler.
How does this keep a hiker safe from rattlesnakes? This is the perspective that makes all other steps for rattlesnake safety possible. Having reasonable, realistic context for what is actually happening when you see a rattlesnake can completely change how you perceive and remember it. It will also help you make decisions based on logic, rather than fear, and the adrenaline that may be blasting through you veins.
And … I know what you may be thinking. You may have had an experience with a rattlesnake that seemed aggressive. A strike out of nowhere, no rattling, or even a memory of one coming after you. This is a complicated topic, but to make it as short as possible: our brains do strange things, especially when confronted with something we fear. I’ll address some aspects of this in other parts of this article … but this is another topic altogether.
2. Get to know the snakes in your area.
This could be a painful truth for the most snake-phobic of us, but learning and exposure can help ease even the greatest fears. As stated in the previous item, the context that exists in our minds can greatly influence how we handle a situation, and how we remember it. If you just roll with the cultural bias and loads of misinformation out there about rattlesnakes, you may have a much worse mental perspective and lesser ability to do the right thing when a snake appears.
This doesn’t mean you have to become a snake handler to conquer your fear. Rather, a bit of online exposure can do wonders. From our experience working with many thousands of people who really would rather not have met a snake in their garage, knowing the difference between a Gophersnake and a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is what makes the difference between getting any sleep that night. There are many online resources for identification and some basic learning. This list of commonly seen snakes in Arizona covers most of the ones people run into. There are also area-specific resources, like this website we put together that shows which snakes can be found in Cave Creek, Arizona, and information about them. Don’t forget, too, that you can always send us a photograph of any snake and we’ll identify it and answer any questions you have (this doesn’t cost anything of course).
Another thing you can do is to visit your local County park or zoo and see a rattlesnake in person. Of course this feels different when it’s behind glass, but getting an up-close look can really change how your brain handles these situations. Better yet, attend a rattlesnake safety or rattlesnake education class near you.
3. Keep your hands and feet where you can see them.
This one can be a little bit tough, depending on where you are hiking. Rattlesnakes spend a lot of their time hiding, and most of the other time they have is spent sitting in ambush, waiting for a rodent, lizard, or bird to come along. That means that you can avoid many of the situations where rattlesnakes could come into contact with your feet and hands by simply making sure that you see where you are putting them. A rattlesnake sleeping away the day behind a log has no idea what a trail is, and when your foot and full weight come crashing down suddenly, what’s a snake to do but defend itself?
When setting up camp, or even grabbing your pack after a break in the shade, be sure to look where you put your hands. I’ve had a rattlesnake crawl onto my camera bag while it was on the ground (while I was photographing another rattlesnake a short distance away), and may have been bitten if I hadn’t had it so built-in at this point to look where I put my hands.
On most trails, this is pretty easy. But what about scrambling up flatiron, or wading through grass and rock around Paria canyon? That can be more difficult, but in general, do what you can to avoid these situations. There are trails for a reason, which leads to our next section:
4. Stay on designated trails
There are many reasons why you should stay on the trail. Aside from the more often-discussed reasoning of keeping the area pristine and avoiding degradation of the natural habitat we’re out there to enjoy, staying on-trail is the easiest and surest way to avoid rattlesnakes.
Just like most of us, rattlesnakes avoid stressful situations. In places where there is heavy human activity, they’ll modify their behavior to stay hidden and avoid potentially dangerous situations. From what many of us who have been watching rattlesnakes hunt right alongside trails for years know very well, they’re pretty good at it. While there are some often great hunting opportunities near trails, sitting right in the middle of a trail that has feet, bikes, and dogs on it every day isn’t a great success strategy, so they don’t do it. When a rattlesnake is seen on a trail, it’s most often just crawling across it, or just off-trail buzzing away because it’s scared of the sudden appearance of a backpack-wearing primate. Rattlesnake bites to the legs of people who are hiking on trails are very rare.
This brings up another common question: what do you do if you see a rattlesnake on a trail and it won’t leave? This one is easier than you’d think … you go around it. There really are very few situations where a person can’t just go around a rattlesnake on a trail. Yes, this seems to contradict what I’d just said by asking you to perhaps go a few feet off-trail for a very short distance, but it’s not a big deal and very different than the over-land trail blazing that produces rattlesnake encounters.
If you can’t go around, then back off and get out of sight for a few minutes. When a rattlesnake is standing up in a defensive posture, it’s doing it because it is scared of you and does not want to give up a defensive position that seems to be working. When the “predator” (aka: YOU) gets out of sight, the snake will quickly take the opportunity to get out of there! In fact, a lot of the snakes that I see pictures of that are “sunning” on a trail actually look to be snakes that were just crawling across the trail, and stop when they see you coming, hoping their camouflage will do the trick. Drop out of view for a little bit and it will continue on its way … or just walk around the thing and continue on. If it’s really in a place that you can’t get around and it just won’t go away … maybe it’s time to try another trail.
Here’s a video of a rattlesnake we saw eating what it thought was a bird right alongside a trail in a popular hiking area.
5. Don’t wear headphones when you hike.
Rattlesnakes have a really great feature that does a great job keeping us from stepping on them – the rattle. When you get too close to a wary rattlesnake, it sounds off to let you know that you’re getting too close. As scary as it might seem when this happens, the result of you going one way and the snake going the other is how that’s supposed to work; that’s the system working.
How do you ruin a good thing? Replace the sounds of birds and wind winding through desert canyons with the same sounds you listen to while stuck in traffic. When you have headphones on, you’re opting out of the built-in safety features generously maintained by rattlesnakes. Even worse, if you’re blasting music for all to hear, you’re not only facing the danger of “silent” rattlesnakes, but from me throwing rocks at you.
6. Don’t touch, catch, pick up, or kill rattlesnakes.
You’d think this is an easy one, but hundreds of men each year must have skipped that day of Obvious 101. Though it is not correct to say that most bites happen because of intentional interaction, these actions are the single greatest cause of rattlesnake bites. There is no better way to be bitten by a rattlesnake than to purposefully touch the thing, so don’t do it.
There’s something about rattlesnakes that makes men want to pick them up. That might mean behind the head like they saw someone do on TV, or by the tail, or after they’ve crushed it with a rock. There is absolutely no reason to do this, and trust me, your Instagram post isn’t worth a potential multi-hundred thousand dollar helicopter ride to the hospital. While you might be confirming to your circle of friends that you’re the dumb one of the group, there are probably better ways to do it. Parkour? Cinnamon challenge? Paperclip eating contest? Who knows, but picking up rattlesnakes isn’t bright.
This can be extended to throwing pebbles, poking with sticks, and any of the actions that are seemingly irresistible to certain personalities. Really, take a breath, take a photograph, and keep hiking.
7. Killing a rattlesnake isn’t helping anyone. Don’t do it.
While we certainly don’t agree with people killing snakes found at home, due to the many alternatives and general ineffectiveness of it all, this is not that situation. There is absolutely no reason to kill a wild animal while out in a natural setting. You are not saving the life of the next hiker on the trail. You are not eliminating a threat and saving the day. If you can’t be outside without taking your rightful place as a respectful visitor, it’s probably time to hike somewhere more your style, like a treadmill.
In many places, it’s also illegal or against park rules. In many of the popular areas like city and county parks around Phoenix and Tucson, visitors are not allowed to destroy native wildlife and natural resources. Killing wildlife in these areas is right up there on the d-bag-o-meter with spray painting rocks and chiseling your name into petroglyph sites.
8. Keep your dog on a leash.
Based on a survey we’ve been sending to veterinarians and sharing with dog-owners to discover why and where dogs are bitten by rattlesnakes, we’ve learned that off-leash dogs are often bitten by rattlesnakes. In fact, an off-leash dog is the second most common way for dogs to be bitten (first is while going out to use the bathroom). We’ve always suspected this, but we were surprised to learn that dogs that are kept on-leash, as the law requires anyway, are almost never bitten by rattlesnakes! How can this be?
Most bites to dogs happen on the nose. That means that the dog didn’t just step on or surprise the snake, but is itself the aggressor. Dog’s don’t know what rattlesnakes are, and rattlesnakes certainly don’t know what a labradoodle is, so when a snake starts its warning buzz, dogs go to investigate. If your dog is on a leash, this isn’t a problem at all, because you have control of the situation. Off-leash dogs, on the other hand, walk up and are bitten right in front of their helpless owners. Yes, your dog may be very obedient and the best boy in the world, but don’t gamble his life to avoid a simple leash.
While on the subject of dogs:
9. Pick up your dog poop.
If you’re reading this while eating a sandwich, it might be good to put it down for a minute while we have real-talk about your dog’s poop.
On trails where dogs allowed (and common) how to maintain their poops is surprisingly controversial. The best and most simple answer is to just pick it up as you go. There are many products available to quickly pick up their little treasures and take them with you. Easy!
You’d think so, but that’s a lot of work for some of us. Some people just leave it where it falls. Others go as far as to put it in one of those little blue poop baggies, then leave it there to pick up on the way back. Aside from being illegal and inconsiderate to other hikes, what could go wrong? A lot. These bags often don’t actually make their way out off the trail. They are picked up by coyotes and other animals, blow off trails, are forgotten or left, or whatever other reason would cause someone to leave a plastic bag of dog crap in alongside a trail.
One group of animals that loves these little wrapped up treats are rodents. Rodents get into these bags like its the morning after halloween and munch away. Woodrats carry them off and stick the bags in their middens, and even rabbits will graze on trail tootsies when they find them.
What does this have to do with rattlesnakes? Simple: your dogs poop is attracting rattlesnakes to the edges of trails. Though rattlesnakes near trails aren’t really a threat to people (as you’ve been reading so far), it’s not necessarily a great thing to encourage them to set up ambush right along the path. Anything that attracts rodents will attract snakes, too. This goes for apple cores and orange peels, too. Just pick it up.
10. Have a plan.
Despite all of this, accidental rattlesnake bites do happen in Arizona. On trails and while hiking, it’s not something that happens often enough to say things like “done hiking for the year!” at the first snake sighting, but it’s something to be aware of. The best thing you can do is just make sure that you have a plan.
While it doesn’t really sit well with most of us, there isn’t much that you can do first-aid-wise if you are bitten by a rattlesnake. As is posted by now on countless hiking safety blog posts, here are the basic do’s and don’ts:
DO call 911 immediately and do what they say.
DO remain calm, remember that you’ll survive, and try and rest until help arrives.
DO remove any jewelry, tight clothing, or anything that could be a problem with swelling.
Don’t kill or capture the snake – it’s irrelevant.
Don’t use a suction device, snake bite kit, or whatever grandma potion you think works.
Don’t drive yourself to the hospital. Call 911. Seriously.
Don’t wait around to see if it’s a dry bite. Treat all rattlesnake bites as an emergency until a doctor tells you otherwise.
I’m often asked about what to do if you’re bitten by a rattlesnake when you’re really far off trail, out of cell range for days, and nobody knows where you are or when to expect you. The answer is to plan ahead! In that situation, if you’ve really put yourself in a place where you have no chance of emergency assistance if something goes wrong, then a rattlesnake bite isn’t any more deadly to you than a broken leg. If you do this sort of hiking, get a satellite phone and think it through.
If you have one of those useless snake bite kit in your backpack, here’s a short instructional video I made about its proper use:
The short version:
How do you stay safe from rattlesnakes while hiking?
Understand that they are defensive, not aggressive.
Know what you’re looking at: educate yourself.
Keep your hands and feet where you can see them.
Stay on designated trails at all times
Don’t wear headphones. The warning doesn’t work if you can’t hear it.
Don’t touch them, pick them up, kill them, etc.
Killing a rattlesnake on a trail isn’t helping anyone, and may be illegal.
Each year, when temperatures are highest and humidity is lowest, rattlesnakes mysteriously disappear from hiking trails. Our snake removal hotline is quiet, and people are more worried about keeping the air conditioning running than rattlesnakes.
But rattlesnakes are cold blooded, don’t they like the heat? A comment I often see on Facebook threads is that snakes love heat, the hotter the better, and when temperatures soar over 100F is when they are happiest. Really, this is completely wrong, and reptiles have just as much trouble in this excessive heat as other animals. It’s even deadly in many cases, and so they do what you’re probably doing right now while reading this: hiding someplace cool and waiting for it to end.
Estivation … kind of like the Arizona version of hibernation
If a rattlesnake doesn’t have a good place to hide when it is this hot, it’s in big trouble. A rattlesnake will die when its body temperature gets too far above 110F (Klauber, pg 418-420). If you try and get the mail barefoot at 9am, you know how tough it is for them. This also means that at temperatures reaching 119F like it did yesterday, just being outside in the shade is lethal to most snakes.
They have no choice but to find deep cover and wait it out. This is a method of estivation; reptiles hide in cool, safe places until conditions are more favorable. You’re probably familiar with hibernation, where animals hide from extreme cold until Spring … this is similar in concept, but in this case, an escape from hot, dry conditions. While it’s this hot, rattlesnakes hide and wait for the rain to come cool things down.
Where do rattlesnakes hide when it’s hot?
Rattlesnakes choose anywhere that offers stable, cooler temperatures as estivation sites. This could be underground in rodent burrows, natural caves in drainages and mountains, or riparian areas with higher humidity than surrounding areas.
They can also choose man-made spots to hide, like under homes or in abandoned buildings. A common place that we find them this time of year is in the garage, which is nothing but a cave if left open at night or not properly sealed. They may also use cool, wet areas in the backyard to beat the heat, like shaded pool filter areas and decorative landscaping. Generally, however, this time of year is low-activity for rattlesnakes, and you’re not as likely to see them out and about.
Some rattlesnakes do make an appearance at night outside of their chosen estivation sites, hoping for the one source of water that may be available to them: rodents. Some native rodents can actually produce water from seeds that they eat, meaning that to a rattlesnake, eating is the best way to get a drink. If you know where to look, these brutal conditions can have a restrictive effect that makes finding rattlesnakes incredibly predictable.
When do rattlesnakes go back to their normal activity?
When the monsoonal rain comes to the desert, the higher level of humidity brings stabilization to temperatures. That’s the signal to leave estivation sites and get out there. What happens next is the busiest rattlesnakes will be all year, from about mid-July until October, when they eat, give birth, and are generally quite active. Much of this activity is still at night when temperatures are more reasonable, but they are often seen in the early mornings on trails, and in the case of at least a few people each morning, on the front patio.
But for the next few weeks, rattlesnakes have much in common with the people of Arizona, and are indoors complaining about the heat and texting their friends in cooler climates with photos of their car thermometer freakout. Well, in spirit anyway.
Spring is here, and the annual Mojave Misinformation migration has begun. BS stories and local lore travel from the deserts of California though the Sonoran desert, stopping along the way to feed on the excitable click-bait of local news networks. Eventually this misinformation ends up in Eastern New Mexico, where brand new misinformation is born in places where this species doesn’t even exist. If you watch carefully, you can catch a glimpse of these “facts” as they pass through social media pages and community groups. The herd leaves its droppings along the way in massive amounts; be careful not to step in piles of “them is good eatin” or “need a new hatband” if you are in the outdoors.
The dreaded “mojave green” rattlesnake: monster of the desert …
Mojave rattlesnakes, or “mojave green” rattlesnakes, tend to get the most misinformation out of any species. This is speculation, but from what I have seen with the stories that form around other species, this is a case of personal communication. That is, this snake has a reputation for being overly aggressive and “nasty”, and is therefore a better conduit for people that would like to tell the world something about themselves. That could be a way to tell others that they are brave or adventurous, after tales of confrontations with the mojave monster and their fight to survive the attack, or just how much it doesn’t bother them to come into contact with such a menace on a regular basis. These individuals may also have stories of catching a record-sized fish that slipped away before anyone could get a photo, and has certainly been stalked by numerous mountain lions … and possibly bigfoot.
But of course, the real damage caused by intentional creation and spread of misinformation is that it can alter the context, though which people may perceive an encounter with a mojave rattlesnake, and how they remember it. A cloud of misinformation can distort that perception, and a person with an artificially increased sense of fear can actually remember things that didn’t happen, or remember them very differently. This distortion effect is well documented. That means that if a person spends years hearing and reading stories that are exaggerated in nature, it can change how they actually see a snake when it happens, and change the memory as well.
In this way, this sort of misinformation that transcends to local lore can create a cultural fear, where being scared of rattlesnakes is not only expected as a “common sense” mentality, and is even a point of local pride. Becoming educated on the matter becomes more difficult in these conditions, as the barriers are also social. I have experienced, personally, throughout my years of speaking in public about the reality of rattlesnakes, how this social barrier challenges education. When I am confronted with a story told about a 15′ Mojave Rattlesnake biting through a tractor tire, I cannot easily correct that statement with facts without accusing that person’s grandfather of being a liar.
Here are a few of the “facts” that regularly circulate on social media
The “Mojave green” rattlesnake is a not a hyper-aggressive, separate species of rattlesnake. Mojave Rattlesnakes can certainly be green, and even the brown ones look kind of green compared to the dull grey of their Western Diamondback counterparts. However, this can lead to confusion, where people misidentify any rattlesnake they see with a green coloration as a Mojave. A good example are the Blacktailed Rattlesnakes, found in mountains and regions where Mojaves either do not range, or do not use. Another are the reports of Mojave green rattlesnakes being found in parts of Eastern New Mexico where they do not live. When asked for photographs of them, I am emailed pictures of killed Prairie Rattlesnakes, with also look green. The reality is that, while Mojave Rattlesnakes are often green, the color green is not a good indicator for accurate identification.
Mojave Rattlesnakes are not aggressive. This one is a semantic issue, for the most part. An aggressive animal is one that prompts a fight … it comes after you, throws the first punch, initiates the interaction. Mojave Rattlesnakes are, in reality, very defensive. This may mean that they can rattle and strike with more enthusiasm than other types of rattlesnakes, but this is a defensive behavior. That is, it’s started by you. Even accidental acts like stepping on a rattlesnake, though an accident, are initiated by the foot doing the stepping. After that interaction has begun, a Mojave Rattlesnake may, as part of its defensive behavior, even advance towards a person, either to get away or defend itself from its perceived attacker. Perception, as well, can be distorted by fear. Our minds do not always tell us the truth, in favor of escape from a perceived dangerous situation. (Rachman S, Cuk M Behav Res Ther. 1992 Nov;30(6):583-9) Mojave Rattlesnakes, in my experience with them, are definitely more touchy as a whole, but nothing that will take aggressive action. In fact, if rattlesnakes of any species were truly aggressive, and engaged in intentional attacks on people walking by, none of us would ever survive a hike in the desert.
Mojave rattlesnakes are not coming out earlier this year. This is a story that local news throughout their range, and even in places where they aren’t found, like to run every single year. Rattlesnakes of all species are coming out right on time this year, as they have every other year this particular bit of misinformation has surfaced.
There is no such thing as a “mojave red” rattlesnake. The desire to use the term “mojave” can be so strong, that it’s oddly made its way to other rattlesnake species as local common names. “What is this rattlesnake that isn’t green and isn’t a diamondback? Well, I won’t impress anyone with saying I don’t know … so it must be a mojave … red!”. The most common rattlesnake to get the name are actually Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnakes, who appear red or pink in much of their range. However, I have also seen instances of Red Diamond Rattlesnakes, Panamint Rattlesnakes, and Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes get the “mojave red” treatment. In reality a mojave is a mojave is a mojave, red, green, or otherwise.
Mojave Rattlesnakes aren’t as big as many people claim. The largest confirmed Mojave Rattlesnake ever recorded is 48″ long, or 4 feet long (Schuett, Feldner, Smith, Reiserer, Rattlesnakes of Arizona, pg 568). Reality is that people just aren’t great at estimating size, especially at distance, from memory, or of an animal that causes anxiety or fear. Claims of a rattlesnake measuring a full third or more of the largest individual ever documented are common, which begs the question: why are the snakes researchers, scientists, students, or any of the many, many thousands of individuals that are documented so small? Weighing the entirety of both scientific documentation and anecdotal evidence by informed individuals with reports by a populace that loves to distort facts regarding rattlesnakes: there isn’t much of a question what is happening here. Mojave Rattlesnakes are a medium-sized snake, and an adult is usually in the 3′ range. My apologies to your uncle with the stories; it didn’t happen.
This post could go on and on, and perhaps it should. There are many, many more myths about this animal than this group, but this post and associated graphic may address the majority of posts I see on social media about these misunderstood snakes. Really, Mojave Rattlesnakes are not so bad. Viewed in context of wide-spread misalignment on reality, cultural pride in our “dangerous” animals, they are very scary indeed. The next time someone claims that an 8′ mojave rattler done chased their horse for a half a mile, remind them that you know better, and most other people do too.
As temperatures break records and stay in the upper 90’s for days at a time, rattlesnake sightings are increasing. However, does it mean that there are more of them out than there usually are at this time of year, and does that mean there are more snakes? These are questions we are often asked as we handle the yearly increase in snake activity around valley homes.
The answer? Not really.
Although rattlesnakes are indeed cold blooded and require warm temperatures to be active, there is such thing as too much of a good thing. An Arizona rattlesnake will actually die if it’s body temperature gets above 105F for too long. A sunny 95F day will have exposed ground and rock at much higher temperatures very early in the day. This means that hot, sunny weather is actually bad, if not lethal, to rattlesnakes caught out in the open. The idea that the hotter the weather, the more rattlesnakes are out, is incorrect.
Hot weather can lead to warmer average nighttime temperatures, which can signal rattlesnakes that it’s time to leave their Winter hiding spots and go out into the world. When temperatures vary wildly between extreme heat in the daytime and cold, dry conditions at night, this can also limit snake activity.
The average Spring temperatures are about right for rattlesnakes to make the most of it, with daytime temperatures limited to the low to mid 80’s and night time lows in the 60’s.
So why are there so many rattlesnake sightings right now?
A rattlesnake encounter requires two participants: the snake of course, and a person to see it. Arizona’s exceptional Spring weather makes for good hiking, golfing, and it’s of course time to get to the yard work put off in cooler conditions. That means that, not only are rattlesnakes coming out for first meals and mates, but human activity is also on the increase. More people and more snakes all moving around together means that there will be more encounters, and nice weather can influence both of these.
So if a rattlesnake crawls in the desert and nobody is around to see it, does it really crawl? Yes, absolutely, but they don’t get poked with a stick or have pebbles tossed at it.
Will the hot weather mean more rattlesnakes this year? My uncle Randy says so.
No, it won’t. In fact, unseasonably hot weather is pretty tough for wildlife, and if the trend continues, we can expect to see a die-off of some Arizona rattlesnakes, especially those caught in the urban heat island. Higher average temperatures without additional rainfall can mean less prey availability for rattlesnakes, who rely on their food to supply a portion of the water they need to survive. Thankfully, the mini heat wave looks to be coming to an end, punctuated with some cool, wet weather.
Even if conditions were absolutely perfect for rattlesnakes, it would not mean more rattlesnakes this year. Rattlesnakes in the valley give birth to young in the late Summer and Fall, which means that a Springtime with amazing conditions for rattlesnake survival would mean that there are the same amount as there would be anyway. If conditions remain good throughout the year, it could lead to higher survival rates, which could lead to more babies born, and if they manage to survive, then consecutive years of good conditions would have more rattlesnakes. But tell uncle Randy to cool down the misinformation jets a bit – Arizona rattlesnakes aren’t like weeds, and do not spontaneously appear alongside green grass.
We’ve been quite busy relocating rattlesnakes from homes around the valley and seeing lots of snake sightings on social media, but really no more than is expected. The Rattlesnake Solutions snake removal line is a bit busier than last year, but that’s just because we’re another year older, a little more “out there” marketing-wise, and the city is a little bit bigger. All indications are that rattlesnake activity is pretty normal.
It’s all over Facebook conversations and local news: Rattlesnakes! They’re out early due to warm weather! Hide your wife hide your kids!
Really though, it’s just not true. Rattlesnakes are coming out right on time, the same as they did last year and the year before. In fact, they’re coming out at the same time as they have on each of the years this story is reported. That is, every single year. That’s right, the story of rattlesnakes coming out early was also run on local news stations in 2016, 2015, 2014 … every year since I’ve been paying attention to it, starting in 2010. How is this possible? Obviously, it’s not.
But, my friend saw a rattlesnake on the trail. Isn’t that odd for February?
No, it’s not. Though rattlesnake sightings are certainly more common once they’ve dispersed to hunt and find mates, the fact is that rattlesnakes can be seen on the surface any day of the year in Arizona. If someone in your favorite Facebook group has seen a rattlesnake on the trail, it may be an indication of many things, but it does not mean that rattlesnakes are coming out early.
Rattlesnakes do not truly hibernate. They instead enter a period of brumation, which means that on days with nice weather, they may come out from their Winter den and spend time nearby on the surface. What “nice” weather is can change; it doesn’t always mean warm and sunny, as many would expect. In fact, a day in the low 60’s with cloud cover and light rain after a period of several weeks without is prime condition to observe Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes sitting out in the open near their dens.
This may mean that warm weather (>70F) for a few days in a row could give rattlesnakes more reason to show up on the surface than if it were colder. What it also means, however, is that there are more simply more people out there, and more people means more chances to have a rattlesnake encounter. Especially in popular hiking places like Peralta Trail in the Superstition Mountains or Piestewa Peak in Phoenix, a sunny Saturday in February is sure to draw many times as many hikers as a windy, cool and overcast day. This can amplify the chance for rattlesnake encounters, especially up hillsides or less populated trails where snakes are likely spending the Winter nearby.
This is all absolutely normal. This February, so far, I have seen more than 20 individual diamondbacks sitting out soaking up the sun (and sometimes rain). How does this compare to last year, when rattlesnakes also came out early, according to the local news? About the same. In fact, least year our first rattlesnake sighting was on January 3rd – a beautiful Blacktailed Rattlesnake seen at the entrance of a crack North of Phoenix. How much earlier in the year can it get?
The news said they’re coming out early, though … the news is always right, right?
Snakes found in the garage or the yard don’t count.
An increase in the amount of snake removal calls does not necessarily indicate an increase in rattlesnake activity. Many of the snake removal cases that we get this time of year are snakes found in the garage, under deep cover in the yard, or other similar situations where the snake has found deep Winter cover.
One surprising area where we consistently remove rattlesnakes is under the concrete pads laid under pool filter equipment. They’ve been there all Winter, and also come to the surface on sunny days. So, why are we (and other snake removal groups) getting called out more often?
The answer is simple: it’s because the home owners are also more active. We’re spending more time in the yard, doing Spring cleaning … finally removing those bushes that went wild over the cooler months, getting to the junk alongside the house before it gets hot, and other busywork that’s common after the Holidays have worn off. Rattlesnakes are just starting to spend more time on the surface, and the increase of both their activity and our own makes for many more situations where running into an unexpected rattlesnake is possible.
More people, more stories, more photos, more talk.
As more and more people use social media to report on every moment of their lives, rattlesnake sightings increase as well. As much as a selfie on top of the mountain is exciting, nothing beats a rattlesnake sighting for the almighty “Like”. While this experience in the expected time, like April, would just fall into the mix, a rattlesnake sighting in February gets an entirely different reaction. Some speculate global warming is causing them to come out earlier, others claim it’s that the first 75º day of the year triggers them to wanter in search of food, and other things that are completely made up.
So the snakes are out … so what?
Along with each of these reports of early rattlesnakes come a bewildering second series of comments – things similar to “OMG only 2 weeks left before I can’t hike anymore!” If you are spending time outdoors in the native desert areas of Arizona, you are hiking and biking past rattlesnakes constantly. A more useful way to think would be to learn about the realities of rattlesnakes; you’re not in danger if you are aware and resist silly behavior like hitting them with sticks, picking them up, or shooting them.
The next time someone says something about rattlesnakes coming out early, send them this article. Here are some of the rattlesnakes I’ve seen in January and February in previous years; they’re out again, right on schedule:
One of the most beautiful snakes in the world is also one of the most common to see in the Phoenix area. Their specialized color adaptation is so strong that snakes found on the South side of Phoenix are completely different than those from the North valley. Even though these may be the most common rattlesnake on South Mountain, most Ahwatukee residents that we serve have never seen one until the moment one has shown up in the yard.
Here’s a quick video of a couple of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes that I watched for a few weeks last Spring. How do rattlesnakes flirt? This is how it happens, with the “twitchy dance”, along with lots of tongue flicks and tail flipping. They’ll do this off and on for up to a few weeks.
There’s no better first post topic for our new blog, perhaps, than one highlighting the most commonly removed snake species in the city. They’re also one of the most iconic animals in the American West: The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.
The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is, as far as rattlesnakes go, a generalist. It can live in a wide variety of habitat and climates. In Arizona, this means any area where the city borders native Sonoran Desert habitat is also likely a resource for the Western Diamondback. Especially in areas North of the 101 in Scottsdale and Phoenix, where landscaping is a mix of native desert features and plants, rattlesnakes make their home.
We’ve relocated Western Diamondbacks from almost everywhere in the city at one time or another. Some of them, like those that show up in the center of the city, get there by hitchhiking in vehicles or landscaping materials. Some are intentionally captured and brought there by people that think that a rattlesnake would be a great pet, and released once they realize how wrong they were! For the most part, Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes are limited to areas that come into direct contact with native desert.
How big does the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake get?
In the Phoenix area, a very large Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is about 4 feet long, with most reaching a slightly smaller adult size in the 3.5′ range. While some individuals may get into the 5′ range, it is very rare. In fact, in over a thousand rattlesnakes captured and relocated by Rattlesnake Solutions over the years, only one even got close, at an estimated 4’10”. It does happen, but to say “diamondbacks get 5′ long” is a lot like saying “an adult human is 7′ tall. It happens, but it’s not common, and generally not useful when discussing size. Things especially fall apart when a person claiming to see a 6′ diamondback also claims to see them often.
What is most likely, is that people just aren’t as great at estimating size of objects as we like to believe we are, combined with just how bad our memories actually are with remembering the details. If you want to do a simple experiment, get a 4′ (or so) stretch of rope or hose, and coil it in the bushes in the backyard. Ask someone to come out, without telling them why, and tell them to give you the size from 10′ away. If you get any answer that isn’t “how am I supposed to know, I’m not a tape measure!”, it likely won’t be anywhere near the actual size.
While there are some reports of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes getting very large (over 7′ long), this is very rare, and even more rare here in Arizona. Diamondbacks found in the Eastern part of their range in Texas tend to get larger, in-part due to having larger prey to eat, and more of it. There are also genetic differences between these populations, with Diamondbacks East of the continental divide area (about the Arizona/New Mexico border) that may make our Western, Western Diamondbacks end up on the small end. Even more confusingly, there is a completely different species, called an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, that does not live in Arizona at all, and gets larger than any other species of rattlesnake. All of this can cause some confusion when someone says, “hey, I saw a 6 foot diamondback!”, and tries to do some fact-checking on Google.
What part of the City has the most Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes?
Scottsdale 🙂 That’s an easy one. By looking at our relocation data over the years, the corridor above the 101, West to about the 51, has the highest rate of rattlesnake encounters. This isn’t just because of location – it’s more about what is there. Mostly new-ish developments, continued development, and natural landscaping contribute to wildlife encounters here. This doesn’t mean that if you live in North Scottsdale, you’re destined to meet a rattlesnake. … If your yard is within about a block of native desert habitat, however, it’s likely.
Further into the city, your odds of running into a diamondback are much lower. Even on mountains where other species of rattlesnake are fairly common, like Camelback Mountain or Mummy Mountain, diamondbacks have more or less been killed off by surrounding traffic and development.
“I’ve seen Western Diamondbacks … are those different than coontail rattlesnakes?”
This is a question we get from time to time, and no, they are the same species. Western Diamondbacks have a characteristic black and white banded tail just before the rattle. This can be used to identify them, and tell the difference between them and other species of rattlesnake.
Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes are also a great example of some of the confusion that comes from common names given to animals. It seems that almost every place in the Western United States has something that the locals will call a “diamondback”, though in reality there is only one Western Diamondback, Crotalus atrox, which lives in the Southern half of Arizona, Southeastern California, and East into Oklahoma and Arkansas. In much of Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, locals may refer to the local “diamondbacks”, but the rattlesnakes that live there are actually Prairie Rattlesnakes or Great Basin Rattlesnakes.
They are also often mistaken for Mojave Rattlesnakes. Usually the mistaken identity is given to the diamondback, due to the Mojave’s more famous reputation for being overly ‘aggressive’.
Here are more photos of wild diamondbacks! For as common as they are, I never tire of seeing them. If you’ve seen any, tell us about it in the comments.