Summer means cycling, golfing, rock climbing, camping, fishing, horseback riding, boating and swimming. It can also mean increased human-wildlife encounters, including those of the slithering kind. As such, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife reminds people to watch for snakes as they enjoy the outdoors.
Colorado has 28 snake species, but only three are venomous: the massasauga, found on the southeast plains below 5,500 feet elevation; the midget faded rattlesnake, found in western-central Colorado; and the prairie rattlesnake, found throughout the state at elevations below 9,500 feet.
“Most people rarely encounter rattlesnakes, but they are out there,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife reptile specialist Tina Jackson. “They are interesting to watch. They are beautiful creatures. But you need to be careful.”
Knowing how to distinguish a harmless snake from a rattler can mean the difference between a friendly human-wildlife encounter and a trip to the nearest emergency room.
The most distinguishing characteristic of a rattlesnake is the rattle at the end of the tail, but sometimes that can be misleading. For example, bull snakes try to mimic rattlesnakes by shaking their tail and hissing. Mature bull snakes can grow much larger than rattlesnakes and while they are not poisonous, their bite is very powerful and painful.
Jackson says that in most cases, injuries are the result of people trying to handle snakes. People who encounter snakes should never try to move, play with or harass them. The best course of action is to move away from snakes and give the reptiles enough room to slither away, Jackson said.
“If you run into a snake, as with any wildlife, give it room. Don’t try to pick it up. Don’t try to make it move. Don’t try to kill it,” she said. “In most cases the snake is not going to bother you.”
Because they are cold-blooded, snakes tend to move back and forth between shady and sunny spots to regulate their body temperatures. On warm days they become more active, lingering in spots that enable them to move easily between cooler and warmer areas.
“They can’t pant or sweat to lower their body temperatures, so they have to move into the shade. Once they start cooling down, they need to move into the sun to warm up,” Jackson said. “On really hot days they’ll move into a hole in the ground, under a rock, in a woodpile, under a deck, or in the corner of a shed or garage.” Employees of utility companies often report finding snakes curled up in utility boxes.
In the event of snakebite, experts advise victims to seek immediate medical attention. Puncture wounds by non-venomous snakes can become infected if not promptly treated, causing swelling, bruising and pain. Even dead rattlesnakes can be dangerous because their fangs can still transmit venom.
Pets are bitten more often than people because they do not recognize the telltale rattle as a warning sign. Dogs tend to get facial injuries because they try to smell snakes. Cats are more likely to sustain injuries to their front paws because they swipe at snakes.
For more information about Colorado reptiles and amphibians, go to ndis.nrel.colostate.edu/herpatlas/coherpatlas/.