The following is a transcript of the rattlesnake segment from the 'Along the Way: Reptile' show which aired on Clark County Television.
The fear is primal. No stories are necessary; no first hand accounts are required. The moment you hear the sound you know it’s a harbinger of danger. But is the fear valid?
Christie Klinger, Nevada Department of Wildlife… The toxicity of the venom of the different rattlesnake species varies so even if you are bitten it does not mean death. Only one tenth of one percent of rattlesnake bites result in any sort of fatality.
So… if the number of people who die from rattlesnake bites is miniscule, were does the fear originate? Perhaps it’s a reaction to their physical appearance.
Unblinking eyes that stare menacingly into your soul, a tongue that flicks out at you with an almost hypnotic cadence, a triangular head… there’s nothing warm and fuzzy about rattlesnakes. But are these traits manifestations of evil, or simply adaptations that allow the rattlesnake to survive in the desert?
Christie Klinger, Nevada Department of Wildlife… The unblinking eye, as it appears, is because they don’t have eyelids so they never close their eyes. This gives the appearance to people, and predators that the snake is always awake when in fact it might be asleep with its eyes open. The flicking tongue is another adaptation. The snakes flick their tongue to literally taste the air. To see if they can pick up the scent of any prey items that might be nearby. The shape of the head is unique in that its triangular shaped and it accommodates the venom glands.
And it also accommodates rather unique jaws that actually unhinge to about 180 degrees so that they can swallow their prey whole. So, all of these adaptations that make up part of their head give them a unique and almost menacing appearance.
Upon close inspection you’ll find one other adaptation on the rattlesnake’s head. A pit.
Christie Klinger, Nevada Department of Wildlife… Rattlesnakes are part of the pit viper family. And that pit, which is located between the eye and the mouth on the snake is a Thermoreceptor. It helps them detect very slight changes in temperature. Which might indicate that a prey item is nearby.
Combining the heat sensor with its ability to taste the air equips the rattlesnake with nature’s version of night goggles. This makes it a formidable nocturnal predator, however, unless hunting or cornered rattlesnakes are rarely aggressive.
Christie Klinger, Nevada Department of Wildlife… Absolutely! In fact rattlesnakes are very docile, for the most part. You may be walking down a trail and see one curled up underneath a bush… it’s just seeking shade, it may not be rattling. Or you may not even see and you walk right by it and never know you passed within feet of a rattlesnake.
For those who would be pleased to never see a rattlesnake it’s best to understand their behavior, and the key too understanding rattlesnake behavior is to remember rattlesnakes are cold blooded.
Christie Klinger, Nevada Department of Wildlife… All rattlesnakes are cold-blooded, which means they can not regulate their own body temperature like you and I do. They rely on their surroundings to be either warm or cold. Therefore, they first emerge in March when the temperatures get to be about 60 degrees and higher. And they’re most active when the temperatures are moderate; short sleeved shirt weather for us. As the temperatures rise and get into the upper 90s and higher it’s very dangerous for the snakes to be out. They can quickly overheat and die, and that’s when they usually seek shade. It could be the shade of a bush, a vehicle, they may go underground… As the temperatures cool off again in the evenings the rattlesnakes may become more active during the hottest part of the summer, and then generally in the Fall, once we get closer to September, you may see them out all day long again.
Now that you have a better understanding of rattlesnake behavior you can translate that into some behaviors of your own. First of all, no matter what you’ve seen the so-called ‘experts’ do on television… NEVER pick up a rattlesnake. Leave rattlesnakes alone and they’ll leave you alone. Also, on hot days you now know that a rattlesnake will seek shade. Even in crevices, so watch where you put your hands. And finally, you should stay on established roads and trails, but if you do go off trail make sure you watch your step.
Meet Andy He’s from Switzerland. They don’t have rattlesnakes in Switzerland, so Andy doesn’t know the dangers of hiking off-trail in rattlesnake country. This is a Western Diamondback. He doesn’t know Andy… at least, not yet. Andy is warm-blooded so hiking on a hot summer day isn’t problematic. The Western Diamondback, however, is cold-blooded so he has to seek the shade of this bush. Unfortunately, this bush happens to be right in Andy’s path. Because the Diamondback feels secure hidden in the bush he doesn’t signal out a warning to Andy… at least not until it’s almost too late. Andy got lucky this time, but by understanding rattlesnake behavior you can avoid this classic case of unprovoked snakebite.
If you run across a rattlesnake on the trail don't panic. Rattlesnakes only strike as a defensive measure. And the optimum striking distance is a lot shorter than you'd think.
For example, hidden behind this bush, coiled and ready to strike is a rattlesnake. Am I afraid? No! Why? Well, mostly because it’s a stuffed animal, but… even if this snake were real I still wouldn’t panic.
You see, at best, a rattlesnake can only lunge about 1/2 of its total body length. According to that calculation, a 4-foot snake, which is about the largest you’ll find here in Clark County, can only strike say, within 2 feet. Now that’s if it’s coiled and on level ground. If it’s stretched out across the trail the best it can do is just turn it’s head. Now, had Andy known this he could have simply skirted any place where a rattlesnake could hide by say 2 feet and he’d have been fine.
And he could have further minimized his exposure by wearing sturdy leather boots and baggy pants. The leather boots afford some protection against the rattlesnake’s fangs and the baggy pants might cause the snake to misjudge its strike. But even with all of the proper precautions, there’s still an infinitesimal chance you could get bitten. So, what do you do in the event of a snakebite?
Christie Klinger, Nevada Department of Wildlife… There’s a couple of really important simple things they need to do and remember. The first is to stay calm or keep the victim calm. If you’re excited, if you’re nervous, it’s going to increase the blood flow it’s going to cause the venom to spread more quickly through your body.
The second thing you need to do is immobilize the victim. Try to keep the bite below the heart level. Just keep them calm, keep them immobile, and reassure them.
The third thing you want to do, if time’s possible and if you can do it safely is try to identify the snake. It helps the medical professionals determine what course of treatment to take.
The next thing you need to do is monitor the victim. Always be monitoring the victim, watching for any unusual symptoms or signs. Keep them talking, talk to them, keep them calm, reassure them.
And the last and most important thing is get them to a medical center as quickly as possible. Do not ever assume that a rattlesnake strike may have been a dry strike where there’s no venom involved. Always, always seek medical attention. And that includes for pets as well.
Nothing takes the place of these 5 responses to a rattlesnake bite. All other reactions are at best ineffective, and in the case of some treatments like ice packs and tourniquets they can actually cause more harm than good. Commercial snakebite kits are equally effective. At least for their advertised purpose.
David Bert… Well, have to say I did bring an Extractor kit with me. Because, although I know they are completely ineffective, they do absolutely no good physically, I think psychologically they do a great job. Most people aren’t used to trying to be calm after being bitten by a rattlesnake. I find that if you have these you can divert their attention. While you’re doing it you can help to calm them down. Which really is the number one thing… get calm. If you can lower the heart rate the venom will go through the system slower, and you have a better chance of getting to medical attention. So, I do think they do serve a purpose, not the purpose they’re intended to, but I do think they have some purpose.
Christie Klinger, Nevada Department of Wildlife… I couldn’t agree more. Anything to keep the victim calm is going to be a good thing. Just bear in mind that your number one priority is to stay calm and get to a medical facility as soon as possible.
If time allows, you can facilitate the treatment of the wound by knowing which rattlesnake bit you. Different rattlesnakes have different types of venom. Know the rattlesnake and you know the correct treatment. Let’s take a look at the five of rattlesnakes found here in Clark County.
This is the sidewinder. Because its venom is only moderately toxic and delivered in small doses it is considered the least dangerous of the rattlesnakes found in Clark County. It gets its name from the side winding locomotion it uses to travel.
It is also referred to as the horned rattlesnake because of the modified scales over its eyes. These protect the snake from wind, sand and the loose earth it burrows into for camouflage. It’s coloration is tan to grey with brownish blotches on it’s back. It averages 1 to 2 feet in length, prefers sandy or loose soil terrain and can occasionally be seen burrowed in the soft earth.
Widely considered the most dangerous, the western diamondback is by far the largest of the rattlesnakes in CC. It is capable of delivering large doses of moderately toxic venom, and although not aggressive it will aggressively stand its ground when cornered.
In Clark County it averages 3 to 4 feet in length although elsewhere it can reach up to 6 or 7 feet. It’s tan to dark brown in color and has large diamond shapes on its back that are edged with black and white flecking. It’s preferred terrain is foothills and desert washes.
The nickname ‘coontail’ refers to the alternating black and white banding on the tail near the rattle. Most snakebite fatalities in the Southwest are from the Western Diamondback.
Another rattlesnake with a banded tail is the Mojave rattlesnake. Commonly know as the Mojave ‘Green’ it’s coloration tends towards various shades of green, but it can be tan to light brown.
Like the Western Diamondback it also has a banded tail, but on the Mojave, the white bands are significantly wider than the black bands.
The Mojave also has rough diamond shapes on it’s back that are bordered with light colored scales. Although it’s average size of 3 to 4 feet is about the same as a Clark County Diamondback it’s venom is significantly more toxic making it a snake to be reckoned with.
The other two rattlesnakes found in Clark County are both speckled rattlesnakes.
The one most commonly found near Las Vegas is the Southwestern Speckled. The name is derived from it’s salt and pepper coloration although it’s color can vary greatly depending on its environment.
It’s cousin, the Panamint, has a much more defined pattern with darker blotches or banding set against a light body. Both snakes blend in well with their environment. They average 2 to 4 feet in length and have moderately toxic venom that can be delivered in large doses. Primarily found in hilly rocky areas.
This is a gopher snake not a rattlesnake. It’s relatively harmless, however, it can imitate a rattlesnake’s posture if it feels threatened. When trying to identify a rattlesnake remember… just because it slithers and flicks it’s tongue like a rattlesnake doesn’t mean it is a rattlesnake.
Whether you encounter a rattlesnake, a gopher snake or any other reptile in Clark County your reaction should always be the same… respect, not fear. These animals are not out to get you… they’re simply another strand in a web of life.