Rattler ruminations: Tips for living with poisonous vipers

In old movie westerns, pesky rattlesnakes always seemed to coil near the rocks and cacti and bite heroes and heroines at the most inopportune times. Of course, there are no good times to suffer a viper’s strike, but fortunately rattlesnakes—specifically, the western rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis—have no desire to waste their time and energy defending territory from long-legged primates. Now that the winter’s cold has loosened its grip on Northern Colorado, the more you know about these diamond-patterned reptiles the easier it is to avoid a mutually disagreeable warm-weather confrontation.

Rattlesnake resume
Rattlesnakes smell with their tongues and can sense the heat of your body with two infrared detectors located in pits between the eyes and nostrils. Rattlesnakes add a new rattle with each molt and can shed their skins several times in a season. Thus, the number of rattles on their tails provides only a rough indicator of age. A publication by the University of California says that there are about 800 rattlesnake bites per year in the United States. “While seldom fatal, bites are extremely painful and can lead to severe medical trauma.”

Colorado serves as home to only two species: the western rattlesnake and a southeastern grassland cousin, the massasauga rattler. The following tips for avoiding “severe medical trauma” pertain to the former species, the only one you’ll encounter in Northern Colorado.

Tip 1: know how to recognize a rattlesnake when you see one. Two features make the western rattlesnake memorable: her triangular head and the rattles serving as reptilian castanets. Her fangs, vertical pupils, and some scaly details near her private parts give additional proof to snake aficionados. Bull snakes, though harmless, will sometimes vibrate their tails in imitation of their poisonous cousins, but bull snakes have pointed tails with no rattles, a blunter head (not triangular), and eyes with round pupils rather than vertical like the rattlesnake.

Tip 2: Know where snakes hang out. They tend to avoid strip malls and fast food restaurants, but do enjoy rocky slopes, open prairie, and anywhere bite-sized rodents, bird nestlings, lizards, and suitable insects linger. Being cold blooded, they don’t mind hot days and may sun themselves early in the morning in lieu of warming up with a cup of coffee. They do seek shelter in cool, damp places, so will sometimes enter buildings or find hidey-holes beneath cement platforms at picnic areas or outdoor kiosks. Don’t climb rocks without taking care where you put your hands. On paths, be wary of recessed nooks beneath log steps.

Tip 3: Dead snakes can still bite. Until rigor mortis sets in, reflexive muscle contractions can allow a rattlesnake to exact postmortem revenge.

Tip 4: Avoid snake mammas and their youngsters. Rattlesnakes hibernate in winter, but awake in the spring randy and ready to breed. Snakes stay active until mid fall. Rattlesnakes give birth to from 1 to 25 live young in rocky crevices while many other snakes lay eggs. Mothers, of course, can be cranky, and young snakes show no restraint when it comes to loading their fangs with venom. Adults might adjust their dose to save ammunition, but youngsters often blow their allowance all at once.

Tip 5: If bitten, the best snakebite kit consists of car keys and a cell phone. Call the hospital or 911 with the phone and drive to the closest treatment center. Rattlesnake antivenin is commonly available at many medical facilities. Stay calm (to keep the venom from circulating in the body faster) and remove rings, watches, and anything that could contribute to swelling below the bite. DON’T use tourniquets, make incisions, try sucking out venom by mouth, or use ice packs. You can wash the bite with soap and water and/or use a Sawyer Extractor Pump (Available at REI, Walmart, and elsewhere) to remove some venom. (The pumps are somewhat like a syringe with a cup-like attachment at the end that fits over the wound.) Immobilize the bite area, if possible, and keep it in a neutral to below-the-heart position.

Recent studies of two subspecies of the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake have shown that venoms are rich protein cocktails that can change from one habitat to another. Mountain dwelling snakes had more nerve toxins in their venom and grassland populations had more blood thinning toxins. Snakes in mountainous terrain may need to knock down their prey quickly before they scoot into a rock crevice. The same variations might be true for rattlers in Colorado. The state of our ignorance about venom means that we should expect considerably variability in both individual reactions to a bite and the effectiveness of antivenins.

Tip 6: If you know you will be bushwhacking through snake country, invest in a pair of snake guards to fit over your shins, ditch the sandals and wear hiking boots.

Tip 7: Colorado State University has a nice tip sheet that includes directions for building a snake proof enclosure—perhaps a kid’s play area. (http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/natres/06501.html) The City of Fort Collins also has advice about snakes at http://www.fcgov.com/naturalareas/rattlesnakes.php.

A personal encounter
Once on a fossil-hunting trip that included an expert on trilobites (think 500- million-year-old ocean-going pill bugs), I stopped in my tracks at the sound of rattles. Looking down I saw a diamond-backed serpent on full alert. Both the snake and I began a slow retreat from each other. As the snake uncoiled and moved away, the expert approached from the snake’s rear and picked him up by the tail. “The snake can’t strike if he can’t coil,” said the expert, who then relocated him away from the dig.

As they say on some commercials, DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME. The trilobite hunter sported the gray hair of experience, so he may well have been right—or perhaps just lucky. Enjoy the great Colorado outdoors and let the rattlers do their job keeping rodents under control. The vipers will do their best to stay out of your way if you return the favor.

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