In spite of the general fear of rattlesnakes and the media storm when someone is bitten, statistics reveal that only about 800 bites a year are recorded in California. However, San Diego, with its hot dry climate claims more than its share. Only one or two of those bites are fatal each year.
San Diego County is home to four species of rattlesnakes, the most common being the South Pacific diamond back. It is found near housing developments, parks, in sage scrub and in grasslands.
HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A RATTLESNAKE AND A HARMLESS SNAKE
The rattlesnake has a heavy body and a triangular head with a distinct neck. The eyes are hooded and have elliptical pupils, like a cat. Gopher snakes, which are very beneficial, are often mistaken for rattlesnakes as they will often imitate the posture of a rattler and even strike. Gopher snakes have a narrow head and are missing the black and white banding on the tail that a rattlesnake has.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR AVOIDANCE
The Department of Fish and Game advises you to:
- Wear ankle high boots and loose fitting pants when hiking.
- Stick to well used trails and avoid tall grass. Avoid stepping or reaching where you cannot see.
- Do not hike alone and carry a cell phone.
- Don't handle a freshly killed snake as it can still have the reflexes to bite.
If you get bitten by a rattlesnake:
- Do not use home remedies to treat it. Go to your closest emergency room (not urgent care).
- No sucking or cutting the wound.
- Keep the wound below the heart.
Rattlesnakes have an important role in the environment. They also prey on many rodents that are pests to gardeners and farmers. Killing them should be a last resort.
The snakes often hunt at dusk, seeking small rodents. Their forked tongue senses odors and passes them to an organ in the roof of the mouth. Therefore hunting in total darkness is no problem. Rattlesnakes fall into the category of pit vipers so named because of the pits on each side of the head that detect heat. So rather than seeing their prey, the snake essentially creates a heat image of its target. Although rattlesnakes can see movement up to 40 feet.
Interestingly, rattlesnakes have no outer ears. They feel vibrations through body muscles, which then sends the ‘sound’ through the jaw bones to an inner ear.
Rattlesnakes strike with unfolded fangs, injecting venom into their prey. About 25% of the bites are ‘dry.’ The venom stuns the victim. If the creature crawls away, the snake can follow it by using the odor sensors in its tongue. Using a mouth that can open to 180 degrees, the snake swallows its victim whole. The venom also serves to break down tissues to begin the digestive process.
The San Diego Zoo website calls rattlesnakes the most recently evolved snakes in the world. This may be partly because of their unique reproductive process. The snakes reproduce every two years. Mating, which can take hours, occurs in the spring. The female can then store the sperm for up to two months. After fertilization, the female creates and carries eggs for about 90 days. The eggs hatch inside and the young are born live. The female can carry up to 25 eggs, but generally only nine or ten are born live, usually between August and October.
Newborns, about ten inches long, are immediately independent of the mother. They are venomous from birth and can be powerful at even this young age. It is a myth; however, that baby rattlesnakes deliver more venom than adults because they can't control their bites - the truth is that adult rattlesnakes have much more venom, so can do much more damage.
Many young snakes die from predation and starvation. The young will molt three times annually and each time a new rattle is formed. The belief that the age of a rattlesnake can be determined by the number of rattles is false, as the rattles, which are made of keratin, much like our fingernails, frequently break off or wear out.
The lifespan of a snake in captivity can be 20 to 30 years, but in the wild it is 12 to 15 years. Their predators include king snakes, wild pigs, roadrunners, hawks, eagles and, of course, humans. Their defenses are to hiss, rattle, puff up, be still, and to slither away. They are more likely to strike when shedding, mating or giving birth. The Department of Fish and Game website claims that rattlesnakes are generally not aggressive and that many bites are the result of startling the snake.