Let’s talk about Longnosed Snakes

For as common as they are, and as often as people see them, the Longnosed Snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei) is almost unknown to most of us.

Why is this? It seems to be due to a superficial similarity to a very well-known snake, the California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae). A mild-mannered, white-and-black banded snake that appears from time to time in backyards throughout Arizona, Kingsnakes are famous for their preference of rattlesnakes as a food source. They look quite a bit like the lesser-known Longnosed Snakes, but have a few key differences.

First, it should be said that Longnosed Snakes are completely harmless. They’re eaters of lizards, reptile eggs, and small rodents. I’ve never had one attempt to bite me over hundreds individuals handled. They do have a tendency to poop on the hands of the holder, however, and even bleed from their cloaca as a further action to say “hey, don’t eat me, I’m gross.” It must work, because I’ve never eaten a Longnosed Snake!

Longnosed Snakes live on the ground, and are mostly nocturnal, though they can be seen moving at any time of day in certain conditions. I most often encounter them as they move from hole to hole in the desert soil, poking their namesake nose in to see if there’s anything good to eat inside. They can get large, up to about 3′ in length, though most adults are a little more than 2′ long. They’re one of the few snakes that has become well-adapted to highly developed areas and can be found far from natural desert areas. Specifically, the Paradise Valley area, with its lush and green backyards that also tend to be huge, are home to a large number of Longnosed Snakes.

How to tell the difference between a Longnosed Snake and a Kingsnake

While some Longnosed Snakes are just black and white, most have some red, pink, or orange coloration as well. The pattern is most often more of a loose, jumbled or “pixelated” appearance, some having full red bands along with the black and white. Others just have a bit of a pinkish wash over the back, but it’s quite visible. Kingsnakes never have this coloration, so even a little pink or orange is enough to tell one from the other.

As the name implies, Longnoses Snakes have, wait for it … a long nose. It’s longer and more pointed than the round snout of a Kingsnake. It can be difficult to tell without seeing a lot of both without a direct comparison, but it’s clear when they are side-by-side.

Longnosed Snakes also often have grey or white smudges within each black band. Kingsnakes, while their pattern is very often far from perfectly-formed, don’t mix it up like this.

How to quickly differentiate a Longnosed Snake from a Kingsnake:

  • Longnosed Snakes have red, pink, or orange coloration. Kingsnakes do not.
  • Some Longnosed Snakes have red or orange eyes. Kingsnakes’ eyes are black or black and white.
  • Longnosed Snakes have a longer, pointed nose than Kingsnakes.
  • Longnosed Snakes may have white or grey smudges within the black bands, while Kingsnakes bands are completely black.
Longnosed Snake – Photo by Amy Willmon Dillon
California Kingsnake

Why does it matter to know the difference?

I’ve always found this mentality odd, but it’s a question that’s posed enough (usually angrily, for some reason) that it should be addressed. If you are one of the many people who come to anger over facts that you don’t personally value, you are correct: knowing the difference between a Longnosed Snake and a Kingsnake is not likely something you’ll ever need to know. However, if you’re scared of snakes (most likely the reason for the above-mentioned attitude), knowing more about them is how you fix that.

Both Longnosed Snakes and Kingsnakes are completely harmless and not an issue at all to find in your yard or home, but for the snake-phobic, knowing what you’re looking at at 2 a.m. in your kitchen may be the difference between going back to sleep or not.

Longnosed Snakes tend to be found within homes more often than Kingsnakes. It could be because they seem to be more commonly encountered in general. It could also be because they tend to lay their eggs in areas around homes where they get inside more often. Flowerbeds, lantana bushes, and eroded material between pavement and the foundation are common spots for this to occur.

When baby Longnosed Snakes hatch, generally in the first few weeks of August, they seem to appear everywhere. Any social media or community group will have daily photos of baby Longnosed Snakes, asking “what is this?”, and a stream of incorrect identifications of a Kingsnake. While Kingsnakes do get into homes from time to time as well, they are not nearly as adept at doing so as the smaller, less-famous Longnosed Snake.

Aren’t sure? Send us a photo!

Many people are surprised to learn that Longnosed Snakes exist at all, let alone are the true identity of decades of “Kingsnake” encounters. If you have a snake photo that you’re not quite sure of, email it to us and we’ll tell you what it is.

No, Benadryl Does Not Cure Rattlesnake Bite.

The latest bit of rattlesnake misinformation is spreading fast, showing up all over the place these last week or so. It claims people living in “rattlesnake country” (i.e., almost anywhere in the U.S.) should keep plenty of Benadryl on-hand, being a miracle cure that works must faster than tried-and-true antivenom.

Before getting into specifics – if you read no further: the quotation below is all highly inaccurate; do not spread false medical advice. If you have shared this post, delete it. There are no folksy home remedies for a rattlesnake bite. There are no essential oils or homeopathic water pills that will work. Venom does not care about how you feel about science, Western medicine, and the healthcare system as it destroys your body.

Here’s the latest iteration, shared today many hundreds of times across Facebook:

Important info about keeping Benadryl with you –
For all of us in Rattlesnake country: I have learned something new that I thought was important enough that I wanted to pass on. Our hired man was bitten by a rattlesnake a few days ago. He was getting ready to bale and turned over a windrow to check the moisture and the snake was in it. It wrapped around his arm and bit him on the underside of the wrist. Luckily it was not a severe bite, the fang marks were clear, but not deep enough to draw blood. He came straight to the house and we got ice on it and had him to the hospital within an hour. I called ahead so the emergency room was ready for him. By the time he got there his arm was starting to swell to the shoulder and his throat was getting tight. The first thing the emergency room did was give him Benadryl. Apparently antivenom must be received within 4 hours of the snakebite, but the immediate threat is swelling and death of tissue, which was treated with the Benadryl. The swelling in his arm and throat started going down right away. The anti-venom medicine had to be prepared and was not ready for a couple of hours. He ended up getting two doses of antivenom and spent the night in the hospital, where they drew blood every three hours, but came home healthy the next day and went back to work. 
I have always carried liquid Benadryl in all of the pickups because I am allergic to bee stings. After this happened I went out to check my supplies. All three of the bottles I had been carrying behind the seats in my emergency kits had been in there quite a while and had cracked and the liquid was gone. So that wasn’t going to be any help at all if we did need it. 
My daughter, who is a nurse, told me to go buy the children’s chewable Benadryl instead. It is given according to body weight, so can be used for adults also, just give a larger dose. She said if you chew it and hold it in your mouth it will absorb just as fast or faster through the membranes of the mouth than from the stomach. The box doesn’t take much room and can be thrown into the glove compartment or saddle bags or a back pack if hiking, etc. Makes sense to me, and it might save a life.

This is not good information. Starting with the tale of the rattlesnake that wraps itself around the person’s arm before biting, and getting worse from there. The rest, seems like a third-party interpretation of a possibly real story that has been distorted and misunderstood until twisted into this last form.

Benadryl is used in the protocol of some paramedics and hospitals as a response to anaphylaxis. This does not mean, however, that it should be expected to delay the effect of the venom, as is suggested in the post.

The post author’s daughter might indeed be a nurse, but let’s try some more qualified individuals. The best breakdown is a Facebook comment from Dr. Nick Brandehoff, Emergency Medicine/Medical Toxicologist at UCSF Fresno, which details just how little Benadryl helps as an emergency snake bite treatment. This statement has also been backed by the Florida Snakebite Institute as well as doctors and staff of the National Snakebite Support Facebook Group.

Hi Everyone, I wanted to address the poor information about the use of Benadryl (diphenhydramine) making the rounds on several snakebite forums. Benadryl is ineffective for treating a venomous snakebite, even as a temporizing measure in the back country for the following reasons.
1) Pit viper envenomations in the US cause local tissue injury from direct venom effect. The cell death causes swelling and pain from the release of intracellular contents as the cell dies. Furthermore, venom causes blood vessels to become “leaky” resulting in further swelling, redness, and pain as fluid leaves our blood vessels and enter the tissues. Benadryl does nothing to negate these effects.
2) Systemic symptoms of envenomation are rare but may include nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, swelling of the throat, bleeding, etc. These are also venom induced and are not reversed with Benadryl either.
3) Allergic reactions can happen from a snakebite but are very rare and if there are systemic signs as discussed above, the acute treatment is epinephrine, not Benadryl (or steroids, etc). Benadryl and other drugs can be used in conjunction with epinephrine at the hospital to keep the allergic reaction from rebounding.
4) Comparing bee venom and snake venom to assume Benadryl will work is not congruent. Bee venom specially targets cells causing release of histamine which results in swelling, pain, redness, and allergic reactions. This is similar to the pathway for non-venom induced allergic reactions. Benadryl is a “antihistamine”, so the mechanism to stop the reaction makes Benadryl a good drug for this scenario. This is not the case for snake venoms.
In short, Benadryl is not effective for snake envenomations in humans or other animals. Please stop sharing this information.

Here’s another comment from Joe Pittman, RN, CEN-Director, Florida Snakebite Institute

“Benadryl offers no benefit in the management of snakes unless the victim is experiencing an allergic response, however the first line medication for treatment is epinephrine. Additionally Benadryl can cause an alteration in the victims mentation masking other neurological signs and symptoms.”

A Facebook comment from Dr. Spencer Green, Toxicologist at Bayou City Medical Toxicology & Emergency Medicine Consultants

Diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is an antihistamine. Histamine does not play a role in snake envenomation. Therefore, diphenhydramine has no role in its management. 

The RARE exception to this would be if the patient were to have an allergic reaction, either to the venom or the anti-venom. Diphenhydramine would be SOMEWHAT helpful in that situation, but it’s certainly not the most important medication.

But because those allergic reactions are very rare, I will reiterate that, in general, Benadryl has essentially no role in the management of snakebites.

Here’s an article written by Sheri Monk, paramedic, investigative journalist, and an avid field herper.

Dispelling the Benadryl myth – misinformation can be deadly

When someone is bitten by a rattlesnake, there is nothing that can stop the venom from circulating in the tissue – not a tourniquet or a suction kit.

How each individual reacts to the venom is going to vary, and the only known means to neutralizing the venom is through the use of antivenom. Antivenom needs to be administered quickly, in the care of a physician, and in a professional setting such as a hospital. There are no home remedies.

Rarely, some people may experience an allergic reaction to the venom, much like how some people react to bee stings. When this reaction becomes systemic, meaning it moves from just one organ system (such as swelling in the tissue near the bite) to at least one other organ system such as the respiratory system, it is considered to be an anaphylactic reaction, also known as anaphylaxis.

Patients experiencing anaphylactic shock immediately require epinephrine – the same medication found in an EpiPen, and emergency services should be called without delay. Benadryl, also known as Diphenhydramine, is a useful medication in continuing to manage allergic reactions. Benadryl cannot reverse anaphylaxis as it works too slowly over the course of hours rather than seconds. It can, however, help manage allergy symptoms.

In the same way that Benadryl isn’t an effective treatment for anaphylaxis or a substitute for epinephrine, it also isn’t an effective treatment for snakebite or a substitute for antivenom. The only treatment for tissue damage caused by snake envenomation is antivenom. Benadryl and epinephrine are only used for allergic reactions resulting from envenomation. The same is true for other mammals such as dogs.

To recap:
• Of those envenomated, only a few will experience an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

• Anaphylactic shock is a medical emergency that urgently requires epinephrine.
• Benadryl is used in managing symptoms of allergic reactions – it does not treat snakebite.

• The only treatment for snakebite is antivenom, which can only be found and administered in hospital under the care of a physician or veterinarian.

The space where snakes, specifically rattlesnakes, occupy in the minds of our culture makes it very easy for misinformation to spread. Fear of snakes and stories that challenge reality are a badge of honor in many communities. The bar for research and fact-checking is very low. This is a known issue and usually just an annoyance, but this is different and can get someone hurt. The average person who has rattlesnakes on the mind from time to time has very little chance of having access to an accurate set of information. If you’ve shared this post, don’t be part of a chain of misinformation. Delete the post. It happens – these are difficult times to know what’s real and what isn’t.

For further reading to answer questions about what does work, and provide context for any of the above refuting statements: here are publications detailing actual, modern treatment of venomous snake bites.

https://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0401/p1367.html?fbclid=IwAR0gydp61uzlmKPMhx8urOMWUdMuUDs9TJFRb52k5PPw03Hjm2eXU6vW45o

(courtesy of Albert Coritz):

For Humans

For Animals

Why Relocate Harmless Snakes?

Along with many hundreds of rattlesnakes each year, harmless and beneficial reptile species are often captured and moved a short distance at the request of Arizona homeowners. Gophersnakes, Kingsnakes, Groundsnakes, Coachwhips – even lizards such as Chuckwallas – are gently stuffed into a bucket and escorted elsewhere.

This leads to an obvious and common question that we are asked when this is discussed. Why would anyone want to move a harmless species of snake from their yard? And, why would an ethical wildlife services business do so when asked? These are very good questions, and rather than mention it in our social media comments, I’ll address the topic here so it can be answered in detail.

Before diving in, it’s important to understand the goals of snake-relocation and prevention as a practice. There are many ethical considerations that sometimes conflict with one another, and having clear criteria laid out can help form best-practice procedures. There are many masters to serve, and balance between them is not cut and dry. Some are of equal importance, where any action must take multiple priorities into consideration.

Primary considerations of equal weight for any action:

  1. Benefit to the snake. Is the action impact survivable and justified?
  2. Benefit to the homeowner. Are residents and pets made safer by action?
  3. Benefit to community. Is the public perception of wildlife positively affected by action?

Additional considerations that help shape decision-making, but are always secondary to the primary goals:

  1. Benefit to education/research. Is there information or a teachable opportunity gained by action?
  2. Benefit to ___insert relocation org here___. Does action help advance the operation and ability to positively affect primary goals?

Ultimately, capturing and relocating snakes must progress one goal above all else: peacefully mitigate immediate wildlife conflict while providing long-term, sustainable alternatives. Snake relocation is the quick fix, snake fencing, education, research, and ongoing outreach are the long game; the latter category should perpetually attempt to put the former out of business.

These Coachwhips were requested to be removed by a homeowner, though they are harmless and eaters of rattlesnakes, and that is OK.

Why would a homeowner want to get rid of a beneficial snake, like a Kingsnake or Gophersnake?

Desert-savvy homeowners know that there is no better friend to have in the backyard than these large, harmless snakes. They are amazing, free pest control, in the very least. Some, like Kingsnakes and Coachwhips, even eat rattlesnakes (not Gophersnakes, contrary to popular belief, but that’s a subject for a different article). They don’t hurt anyone, including kids and dogs, as they quietly patrol the neighborhood looking to take out rodents wherever they find them.

The only downside? Simply, some people just do not like snakes. That dislike is most often synonymous with fear. Regardless of the type, aside from any knowledge, a deep cultural-phobia persists for many (I covered much of this in an earlier article about pre-summer mental preparation for the snake-phobic along with some resources if you’re firmly in the “hate snakes” crowd.)

Fear of snakes runs deep – at an individual basis and as part of our culture – and it is not easily fixed. From the outside (as occasional criticism from armchair conservationists seems to indicate) it may seem like all that’s needed to convince someone that the Gophersnake in the backyard is nothing to worry about are some quick facts. The reality is much more complicated.

We do our best to educate and provide as many alternatives as possible. We make sure that people know that the snake in their yard is harmless and will leave on its own. We also have the experience to know when that knowledge alone isn’t enough. In these instances, the situation is best handled by action. The snake can be safely escorted from the property and is not killed by terrified homeowners, who likewise benefit from the educational experience.

Why do you relocate harmless snakes instead of just educating the homeowners?

Based on the goals detailed in this article, sometimes offering knowledge alone will not create the desired outcome. It is important to understand the motivation of the caller, and be able to approach the situation regardless of the most ideal scenario.

In a perfect world, someone calling a snake removal group, who learns that the Gophersnake they’re looking at is harmless and will leave on its own, will thank the hotline operator and ignore the snake. This does happen quite often, but not always.

Fear of snakes is often not a purely logical process. While lack of knowledge and experience is a large component of fear, why and how it affects a person is not so simple that it can be eliminated by throwing interesting facts at it.

Apathy is another foe of education-only conflict mitigation tactics. Many people simply do not care or want to think about the snake in their yard – they just want it gone. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, ignorant, etc. … most people just don’t think all that much about snakes. That’s an odd expectation to have as a prerequisite prior to helping them. New information will not be valued by a person who doesn’t value non-essential knowledge, and that’s ok.

A person with a deep fear of snakes is not likely to be positively affected by learning that the Kingsnake on the patio is harmless and eats rattlesnakes. “I know, but I have kids.”

The guy that just moved into a home on a golf course and doesn’t know who David Attenborough is doesn’t care how cool the Nightsnake in his kitchen is. “It eats scorpions? Cool story bro. I’m killing it.”

We have learned the hard way what happens when idealism supercedes reasonable action. – dead snakes. We get emails and texts every day of decapitated and hacked-up snakes, many of which were well known to be entirely harmless.

Tasked with resolving the conflict between a snake and a person, it is not useful or reasonable to abandon both when the scenario is not convenient.

Conservation outreach is not a job best performed by robots.

For people who enjoy snakes, it can be difficult for us to empathize and act appropriately in these situations. Those who choose to work with the public need to not forget that “the public” is made of people. They should remember that, outside of nature centers and Facebook groups where people intentionally seek and value information, is everyone else.

Do you have anxiety when you fly? Here are reports and data that show how amazingly safe flying is, reading the entirety of which will not make a dent in how a nervous flyer feels on the runway. If this situation doesn’t apply to you, replace flying with whichever fear you have. Does anything change? Would it still change if you perhaps thought differently or had a different personality?

If you’re the type that creates or shares memes and information online to educate people about snakes (or anything, really), consider who you are talking to and why they should care before you do. If you routinely say “herp” or find yourself annoyed when someone mixes up venomous and poisonous, this article is for you. Don’t forget that educating people involves, primarily: people.

Sidenote: the elephant in the room.

Yes, we make money from it. We do try our best to provide as many free services as possible to teach people what these harmless snakes are and that they can just be ignored, but if the situation requires one of our team to spend time on-site, there’s a fee involved to cover our time. That can be seen as an issue for some, but it allows us as an organization to exist and be staffed by experienced professionals with more than a passing interest. That potential for ethical conflict is understood and great care is taken to make sure that whenever possible, these situations can be resolved by information alone. There’s always going to be the “all business is evil; all profit is corrupt” sect of young conservationists who dislike what we do, and that is ok.

Rattlesnake Combat: Wrestling, Not Slow Dancing

You may have seen the photos of two rattlesnakes “standing up” next to each other. Half of their bodies are up off the ground, rising from the grass or brush. It looks like a beautiful mating dance, but the reality is even more dramatic.

Those rattlesnakes are actually two males in combat. A third snake, which is female, will be somewhere nearby.

A great example of rattlesnake combat.

If two male rattlesnakes meet while tracking a female rattlesnake, they may begin this combat. The males will raise their heads up together and begin to wrestle. They’ll twist together and try to knock each other against the ground.

They might fight for seconds or many minutes, but the winner of the battle will stay and mate with the female rattlesnake. The losing opponent will generally flee.

Another example of rattlesnake combat.

Sometimes, a young male will approach an older, larger male who is sitting near a female. The older male might chase the younger male away without a fight. We saw one instance where an older male chased a young male off of a small cliff and into a tree.

It seems counterintuitive. Why would rattlesnakes wrestle when they have extremely potent venom? Rattlesnakes are more social than many people realize. They don’t usually bite each other (of course, there can be cases of rattlesnakes biting each other if they confuse a snake for the prey they are tracking). Plus, there’s no reason to waste venom that’s needed for protection against predators and catching meals. Many animals have rutting behavior that is not meant to seriously injure or kill their opponent, but show who’s toughest.

So what do mating rattlesnakes actually look like?

There is a real mating dance that amorous rattlesnakes perform. The male will do a twitching dance with their head against the female. The rattlesnakes will flick their tongues and flip their tails. This dance happens on the ground, without any of the upright posturing that combatting males do.

The real mating dance.

If you see two males fighting in your yard or on a trail, be on the lookout for the nearby female. Do not approach the rattlesnakes and do not let your children or dogs go near the snakes.  This is just one more example of the highly social nature of rattlesnakes.

Are rattlesnakes evolving to rattle less, or losing their rattles?

Nope. But the topic is interesting, regardless.

This is a relatively new myth that’s something to watch, where those of us who regularly work to dispel rattlesnake mythology see spread and grow across the country. It goes something like this:

“Rattlesnakes are losing their rattles [or ability/will to rattle] because the noisy ones are killed by [hogs/hunters/whatever], so the silent ones live and have a bunch of silent babies.”

So ya, if you squint you eyes just right, you can see that this seems at least plausible (and big props to the United States for incorporating the idea of natural selection into pop-mythology). However, there’s a big problem here: there is no evidence whatsoever that says this is happening.

Ya but I see rattlesnakes when I’m hiking and they don’t rattle, so …

Unpopular truth time: people aren’t as good at seeing rattlesnakes as they may think they are. Even super-experienced outdoorsy types who see relatively high numbers of rattlesnakes each year are seeing a small fraction of those they walk right by.

Rattlesnakes don’t often rattle in the wild, even when there’s someone looking at them. This is a great example of confirmation bias. If you hear that rattlesnakes aren’t rattling any longer, and you then see a rattlesnake just sitting there and not rattling, this can serve as confirmation that the rumors are true. You then tell others this is the case, having first-hand experience on the matter, comment on Facebook, etc. Just like that, you’ve become the latest node in the spread of nonsense without realizing it.

This can be even more confusing for long-term hikers with a lot of experience, who report seeing a this phenomenon over time (decades even), where rattlesnakes used to rattle but now most of the rattlesnakes they see don’t: therefore the myth is true. What these anecdotes really look like is something much more simple to explain. Over the years, these people have simply become better at seeing rattlesnakes, and peaceful sightings of rattlesnakes just sitting silent, as they usually do, become more frequent.

Rattlesnakes near busy areas probably do rattle less, but it’s not meaningful; a more plausible explanation.

Studies of how rattlesnakes respond to stress, specifically in urbanized areas, show that they are pretty good at learning and responding to these situations. When rattlesnakes are around a source of constant activity (like a hiking trail, backyard, etc), they may have elevated levels of stress hormones, and behave differently. These stressed snakes tend to spend more time under cover, making small movements and living a stealthy life.

We see the evidence of this clearly in the yards of snowbirds (seasonal Arizona residents) who own homes in the desert areas and leave them unoccupied for half a year or more. When they return, we’re often called about a sudden rattlesnake infestation! Upon investigation, we find that the snakes have always been there, but just learned to avoid the homeowners. Even something as simple as a car coming and going from the driveway each day seems to have a suppressive effect on visible rattlesnake activity at a home. This is most noticeable in areas where long-term development, i.e. older homes and older urban parks, have stabilized and rattlesnakes and people are somewhat used to one another at this point.

On trails, as part of our study of urban rattlesnakes living in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, we’ve learned that rattlesnakes quite often live and hunt right next to trails. Why aren’t these rattlesnakes rattling? Because they have no reason to. These parks get thousands of visitors every weekend: they are simply used to it. If someone lingers or surprises the snake, it will rattle. The rattlesnakes here are most often seen silently slipping away into the rocks and bushes, as they tend to do anywhere.

This Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake lives, with many others, very near a popular hiking trail, but doesn’t care.

Ya but there are rattlesnakes that have evolved to lose their rattles entirely! What about those?

There are several rattlesnake species that have indeed lost their rattles entirely, or are in the evolutionary process of doing so. However, this fact isn’t at all relevant to the this topic. Here’s why:

These rattlesnakes, most famously the Santa Catalina Rattlesnake, live on uninhabited islands off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. They lose their rattles, most likely, because they simply don’t need them, or possibly to help them hunt birds more effectively. The interesting thing to note here is that the way they are losing them is not that they tend to not rattle, but that the physical structure of the rattle itself is changing. Rattlesnakes in these areas, where the large hoofed mammals that prompted the evolutionary origin of the rattle to begin with, still shake the tail and try and rattle. However, with no segments being retained due to a slight change in shape, nothing happens.

Regardless, the fact that there are some rattlesnakes without rattles at all has nothing to do with this new myth. It does often come up in conversations about it though, so worth mentioning here.

Santa Catalina Island Rattlesnake, with no rattle. Photo by Joseph Ehrenberger.

Rattlesnakes rattle when they need to, but seeing a silent rattlesnake is totally normal.

There was an article posted on NPR several years ago that’s particularly annoying, because it serves as verification to many that this is happening. Local news stations, networks like the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, and many other sources seen as authoritative, have no trouble at all reporting that this is true.

There is no evidence of it happening, and as fun as it might be to have something interesting to add to the conversation, evidence is required to declare that something is happening. If someone reads the NPR article (which I will not link here, hoping it will die a slow death and go to bad-reporting hell), the massive claims about broad changes in evolutionary trajectory of rattlesnakes have not been tested, documented, or even written down as far as anyone knows.

So if you’re one of the well-intentioned, well-informed people that tends to drop the “well ACTUALLY” note about silent rattlesnakes when the opportunity comes up, it’s time to stop. You’ve become a unknowing victim of American culture’s love of rattlesnake misinformation.

Schuett, Gordon & N Taylor, Emily & A Van Kirk, Edward & J. Murdoch, Wialliam. (2004). Handling Stress and Plasma Corticosterone Levels in Captive Male Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox). Herpetological Review. 35. 229-233.

Aaron J. Place, Charles I. Abramson “Habituation of the Rattle Response in Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Crotalus atrox,” 2008(4)
Copeia (18 December 2008)

Pitts, Hughes, Mali. Rattlesnake Nuisance Removals and Urban Expansion in Phoenix, Arizona September 2017Western North American Naturalist 73(3):309-3016

Ávila-Villegas, Martins, Arnaud. Feeding Ecology of the Endemic Rattleless Rattlesnake, Crotalus catalinensis, of Santa Catalina Island, Gulf of California, Mexico February 2007Copeia 2007(1):80-84


Scared of Rattlesnakes? Mental Preparation for Rattlesnake Season

If you’re scared of rattlesnakes, you probably have much more control over that fear than you realize. Before reading this article, ask yourself a question and be completely honest (why wouldn’t you?). Why are you scared of rattlesnakes? When did it start? What specific event or fact? Got it? Good, even if the answer is “I don’t know”, you’re ready to challenge a life-long cause of anxiety.

Here we go …

As temperatures stabilize into warm days and relatively warm evenings for consecutive days, mean that rattlesnakes are going to become quite active over the next few weeks. I thought it would be good to get out ahead of it and have some discussion out of the way to avoid a lot of the daily alarm that occurs each year.

Obviously this shouldn’t be a surprise to any Arizona resident, hopefully by now anyway. It’s not a cause for concern, or to stop hiking or riding. It’s not time to stop enjoying your backyard, or visiting our amazing parks. It is, however, time to remember basic snake safety.

If the whole topic of rattlesnakes is scary for you (this includes you, mr cant-hike-without-snakeshot) taking some time to learn about the local snakes and what they really do and don’t do, can and can’t do, and how your activity fits into the mix works absolute wonders.

Rattlesnake safety is a topic we’ve covered rattlesnake safety quite well at this point, so no need to rehash again. Rather, I’d like to get to the heart of the issue: fear. Specifically, fear that we experience as a culture due to the general lack of information and low level of qualified experience most of us have. Yes, I realize that you may have grown up in Arizona (or Texas, as Texans like to open most statements with), and seen your share of rattlesnakes, but that doesn’t mean you know much about them.

“I grew up in Arizona and know all I need about rattlesnakes”

But how? The same way that I drive a car every day of my life but can barely change the oil by myself without having to have the entire oil pan replaced (ya, that happened). Experience without context, especially when only having a relatively thin slice of experience, gives an incomplete picture of what’s really happening. If you are a mechanic, a little change in the performance of your vehicle or a mystery sound is a very different experience than it is to car-dummies like myself.

So imagine if I used my experience driving a car to inform others about how to solve car troubles. It might look something like “just hit it with a hammer”, which is the equivalent to the inevitable “shotgun” comments that show up on any image of a rattlesnake. I have decades of experience spending a lot of time in cars, but I’m still oblivious to much of the interior.

With rattlesnakes, most people, even the most outdoorsy types, tend to have an experience where the rattlesnake sees them first, and alerts you to its presence by rattling. If this is what most of your rattlesnake experiences look like, the perception that rattlesnakes are overly-touchy, aggressive animals. If those same people had a broader experience, perhaps with rattlesnakes being social, hunting, moving around, and the other >99.99% of their lives where they’re not rattling and being defensive, that picture looks very different. Most importantly, the expectation is different, and then so is the perception of an encounter, as is the memory, and ultimately the very feeling of it.

The best way to be mentally cool when a rattlesnake shows up: learn about them.

Can you tell the difference between a Nightsnake and a Diamondback? Do you know what a Longnosed Snake is? How many rattlesnake species live in your neighborhood? How far can a rattlesnake strike, and will they chase you? If you don’t know, spend a lunch break online with our friend Google and equip yourself for the upcoming year, or ask someone qualified to give an accurate answer (ahem).

As with many things, fear of snakes is often just because we don’t know much about them. In the place of reality are all of the behaviors and possibilities that the mind tends to fill in, regardless of how unlikely or impossible they actually are. It may not be an ideal activity for the snake-phobic, but spend some time learning about the snakes in your area.

If you see a snake in your garage in the middle of the night, knowing the difference between a Nightsnake and a rattlesnake could mean the difference between going back to sleep or not. Though possibly uncomfortable, educating yourself is the single best way to lower your fear and help make life in the desert as easy as it actually is.

For many of us, fear is a choice.

The more you learn, the less space snakes will occupy in your mind. Keep in mind that someone can grow up here and see many rattlesnakes and still not know a thing about them, and just because something has been for a long time doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it.

The good news is that much of the danger is very overblown, especially when some simple preventative measures and appropriate reactions are the go-to, over the sensational and useless that often dominate in disguise as common sense. Rattlesnakes do pose a certain danger which can be overcome, for both people and pets, with preparation, knowledge, and thinking it through beyond just doing things the same way as they’ve always been done.

The amount that we know about rattlesnake behavior has grown tremendously in the last 20 years. I challenge anyone exceptionally concerned with rattlesnakes to honestly self-evaluate the fear, its origin, and go-to solutions. Are they truly useful, or just part of identity, culture, and tradition? If you had a scary experience with a rattlesnake, how much of that is because of how you expected to react, not what the animal actually did? People are very often surprised when they possess the ability to be introspective. Many are not, and will defend misinformation at any cost, but if you’ve read this far, I don’t think you’re one of those types, and are quite capable of challenging your world view.

Remember that no matter how you feel about rattlesnakes, what actually happens isn’t influenced by it. If you’re someone that claims each year, as soon as a rattlesnake shows up on your Facebook feed, to stop hiking: stop. Make this the year you stop being afraid of snakes.

Here are some resources that can help you be prepared, mentally and otherwise, for the inevitable.

First, here is a website I put together specifically for the area around north Phoenix, but works pretty well anywhere in Maricopa county. It includes photos and identification material for the snakes found here. You can also send in photos for identification:

https://cavecreeksnakes.com

Arizona Snake Identification Facebook Group (post photos here for ID):

https://www.facebook.com/groups/azsnakeid/

Here are some articles to address topics that come up each Spring. If you don’t have time to read them, help your neighbors out when they make a statement that could use some clarification.

Arizona Hiker’s Guide to Rattlesnake Safety:
https://rattlesnakesolutions.com/…/arizona-hikers-guide-to…/

Living With Snakes Basics for New Arizona Residents
https://rattlesnakesolutions.com/…/living-with-snakes-basi…/

https://rattlesnakesolutions.com/…/rattlesnakes-coming-hib…/

https://rattlesnakesolutions.com/…/are-these-rattlesnake-e…/

https://rattlesnakesolutions.com/…/spring-is-here-bring-on…/

And lastly, a video I put together in October with 50 venomous snakes to address the question: will rattlesnakes chase a person?

“I thought the rattlesnakes were hibernating!”

It’s December, it’s cold (for Arizona), and the Rattlesnake Solutions relocation team is still busy. Instead of picking up rattlesnakes from patios and porches, we’re pulling Western Diamondbacks from garages and sheds. Whenever this happens, a common comment pops up – “why are there still rattlesnakes out there? It’s Winter, I thought they were hibernating?” What is going on?

The answer is easy enough – why aren’t rattlesnakes hibernating? (or brumating, as is more accurate, with a note on that later) They are, and the places we catch them are where they’re doing it. As we have covered in previous articles about just how and why rattlesnakes choose garages as prime den real estate, rattlesnakes in the warmer parts of Arizona tend to have quite a few options for a survivable winter refuge. When a rattlesnake is found in a garage on a cold December day, it’s likely been there since October, and where it is found is where it was brumating. This is not the same as being active, being “awake”, or any situation where an imagined extension of rattlesnake activity has been extended because of a few warm days or any other reason.

“If it’s cold why are rattlesnakes still out?”

They’re not, they’re in, and that’s where you found them.

These cold-weather sleepy rattlesnakes are often discoveries by people using the holiday downtime to get to long-neglected projects, like cleaning out the garage or tearing down the old shed in the yard. Another common one throughout December are rattlesnakes found under boxes of Christmas trees and other holiday decorations that have remained untouched in the deepest corner of the garage for 11 months. These discoveries are small rattlesnake dens, of only one or a handful of individuals,

Here is a trio of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes that I captured in a storage closet at an apartment complex in Cave Creek:

“But I saw a rattlesnake outside! Why isn’t it hibernating?”

As mentioned earlier, rattlesnakes don’t truly hibernate. Rather, they do something similar called brumation. This means they’re sleeping a lot and avoiding the cold, but if conditions are good for them, they may come sit at the entrance of their den and hang out or move around a bit. What conditions cause this to happen vary by species and location. Here in the Sonoran Desert, temperates can get chilly but not often dangerously cold, and moisture loss is a concern. They don’t necessarily choose sites that have a lot of sun exposure, or even avoid it altogether (Hamilton et al 2008). On some warm days, especially just before or after rain, or a bit of sun after a some winter sprinkles, rattlesnakes will often come to the surface to take advantage of it. That means that if you see a rattlesnake coiled in the backyard, it’s likely been in the area for quite awhile already, and is just coming out a short distance.

“I heard on the local news that rattlesnakes are coming out early, or are active longer this year because of the weather!”

There is no evidence to suggest this is happening, but somehow it’s still a news story each year. According to our call logs over the past decade, our observations, and other research, rattlesnakes are going into brumation (ingress) and coming out of it (egress) in about the same times as normal. That is, generally, in by the first of November, and out by the 15th of March. That means that the shoulder times around those dates are full of rattlesnakes moving around and traveling, so sightings may increase, even as general activity is considerably less than other times of year. This is when you should be keeping garages and gates closed.

How can I be rattlesnake-safe this Winter?

Refer to some earlier articles we’ve provided about rattlesnakes during the cooler months:

Is your home a rattlesnake den? How to stay rattlesnake-free this winter.

Holiday Rattlesnake Awareness Guide for Visiting Family

Spring is Here … Bring on the Rattlesnakes

Approaching 50 Wild Rattlesnakes to See If They Attack

Do rattlesnakes chase people? Which is the most “aggressive”? Did a rattlesnake really attack my uncle?

These questions and comments, often the cause of online arguments, are a perfect example of just how far off the mark common perception is from rattlesnake reality. Why are herpetologists and professionals never chased by rattlesnakes, but others claim to be chased at every encounter? Why is there an apparent correlation between how much a person experiences wild rattlesnakes, and apparently calm demeanor.

There are a lot of reasons why someone may believe a rattlesnake chased them – misunderstanding behavior or context, fear response and perception, and many others. As I have found rattlesnakes and observed the variety of ways they attempt to evade the predator (me), there are certainly behavior that I could reasonably assume to be aggression if I didn’t know better, didn’t understand the intent, and certainly so if some adrenal fear response were added to the mix. Our perception and memories can be molded by our expectation and personal bias, as a lifetime of misinformation and context float to the surface the instant the rattle sounds off.

There are of course other reasons why rattlesnake chases are common stories, and they have nothing to do with snakes. Rattlesnakes hold a special place in our culture as a symbol of the West, and rattlesnake experiences (and how they are handled) can be easy tools to tell other people about ourselves. Rattlesnake encounters are a way of telling about our adventurous nature, our courage, or and other traits that have to do with our perceived identity than rattlesnake behavior. They’re also something people often love to hate, and are proud to fear.

Here’s the video:

Why do we, as a culture, hate rattlesnakes so much?

Yuck. Ick. Yikes. Scary. Huge! Kill it. Run. Shovel. It chased me to my house. It attacked my bike tire. It stalked me for hours. I had a showdown in a canyon and was trapped. On, and on, and on. These may be the real perception of many people, but what is really happening?

I’m not a psychologist, but I do work with rattlesnakes, so let’s just leave the human behavior aspect behind and see what happens with real rattlesnakes in wild situations. I recorded the approach, and sometimes contact, with 50 wild rattlesnakes to see if any of them will aggressively chase me. Watch to see what happened.

Do rattlesnakes chase people?

No, sorry.

There may be a snake that is confused by what a human is and attempts to hide under the nearest cover, which may be us or our car.

There may be a snake confused by a flashlight and attempts to flee into it instead of away, unaware of where the “predator” is.

There may be a snake that is being interacted with and disturbed by someone actively looking for snakes that advances takes active and advancing defensive movement. Of course, if you’re messing with a rattlesnake and it continues to defend itself beyond your expectation or what you would prefer, that’s not aggression. If I’m asleep in my bed and a guy shows up and pokes me with a stick, my escort of that person out the front door is not an attack or a chase. For those of us that are herpers, don’t forget the context of the conversation here. Do rattlesnakes attack people hiking past them, or see someone and chase them into the house? Of course not.

If you disagree, just post a video of a rattlesnake chasing 🙂

Bullsnake or Gophersnake – What’s the difference? If you’re in Arizona, you may be surprised.

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.

Either way, Gophersnakes are harmless animals that are absolutely wonderful to have around the house and the best free rodent control you can get.

Photos of each below:

Sonoran Gophersnakes (the kind we have here in central and southern Arizona)

Bullsnakes (photos by Chad Whitney)

 

 

 

 

The monsoon is here. Are rattlesnakes more active?

After months of brutally hot and dry conditions, the valley was absolutely hammered with rain and wind last night. The longer a person lives in Arizona, the more they learn to love such events. This is certainly true for native Arizonans, including rattlesnakes.

As humidity increases, rattlesnakes that have been hiding deep under cover have been emerging in small groups at the entrance of these safe areas, hoping for some rain. When the first sprinkles do come falling down, the rattlesnakes coil and gather rain on their scales, then drink it from any surface they can. While most of us were swearing in traffic or huddled at the office window watching palm leaves fly through the air, rattlesnakes all across the valley were sitting out in the open waiting for their first drink in awhile. The long wait is finally over – another foresummer survived.

To quickly address what you may be hearing out there: yes, monsoon weather does increase rattlesnake activity.

So what is next in the life of a rattlesnake? Does the monsoon make them more active?

In short, yes. Though rattlesnakes are active all year to varying degrees, the monsoon moisture brings the greatest period of activity of all. In just a few short months, they need to shed their skin (at least once), eat, mate, have babies, eat again, mate, establish dominance over new areas, travel to birthing, shedding, and hunting areas, and more. They are very active and this means that they can show up in surprising places more than other times in the year.

It’s not just the moisture and a chance to drink that brings them out – temperature is a primary driving force that dictates most rattlesnake activity. When the rain finally comes, the temperature stabilizes into a much more survivable, and predicable, range of temperatures. Daytime temperatures drop, nighttime temperatures stay put, and overcast skies can mean a longer, slower climb into lethal temperatures each day. This makes heading out into the world in search of mates or food a much less dangerous activity, and rattlesnakes begin to cover ground much more than in previous weeks. Under the darkness of a new moon in the monsoon humidity, rattlesnakes can be found moving in great numbers everywhere in Arizona.

This may not mean that people are more likely to run into them. Unlike the active period in the Spring, much of their activity takes place at night. That means that while they may be more active than any other time during the year, much of the contact time that can overlap with human behavior takes place right at sunup and shortly after. That means that we will get a few relocation calls each day from people surprised by a rattlesnake sleeping by the front door as they leave for work, but much of the rest of the day is pretty quiet. that is, until the babies start to move.

What happens when baby rattlesnakes are born?

Starting in mid July (now), some rattlesnakes begin to give birth. Rattlesnakes give live birth and do not lay eggs, and will stay with their babies for a period of time afterward. Once the baby rattlesnakes have shed their skin, they head out into the big scary world to eat and figure out how to be a rattlesnake.

As they wander, they often get into a lot of trouble. We find baby rattlesnakes in all kinds of terrible situations – stuck in glue traps, squished all over roadways, and crawling around in conditions that no self-respecting adult rattlesnake would ever be caught out in. This is bad news for home owners near areas where rattlesnakes live, since the likelihood of random encounters may be higher. However, unlike what is often the case with larger and older rattlesnakes, a visit from a newborn rattlesnake may not be for any particular reason but close proximity to desert areas, and may not actually indicate a rattlesnake “problem”.

What can be done to avoid rattlesnakes during monsoon season?

Even when rattlesnake activity is at its peak, the usual rules apply: stay aware, avoid putting hands and feet into places you can’t see, and keep the yard clean. If your backyard looks anything like mine does right now after last night’s massive storm, debris and leaf litter can be all over and be used as cover for rattlesnakes. Do what you can to keep debris to a minimum, rodent populations in check, and assume that any dark place has a rattlesnake in it until proven otherwise. If you live near an area where you may have random rattlesnake traffic, now would be a good time to pull the trigger on getting a rattlesnake fence installed, before the babies come. If you do have a rattlesnake fence already, use the pen test to see if your fence is good enough to really do the job.

Even though rattlesnakes are pretty much having a party right now, it doesn’t mean you need to worry too much. Just stay aware, and enjoy the rain!