Fear, curiosity mingle when snakes and humans cross paths

20 Jul

Wildlife expert Jim Dix holds up a Great Basin rattlesnake (left) and a Great Basin gopher snake (right) for comparison (photo by Clint Thomsen).

The following originally appeared in the July 15, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

First you hear the rattle—that hollow, paralyzing oscillation that your brain seems wired to dread. Your eyes dart frantically in every direction, sweeping the terrain around you for the coiled serpent. If you’re lucky, you’ve caught the rattler’s warning in time. If you’re not, you’ll feel the sting—like two tiny, red-hot pokers—as the snake sinks its fangs deep into your foot.

I’ve played this scenario out a thousand times in my head, and most recently during a hike with my young sons. We were bushwhacking through an overgrown field near our Stansbury Park home when 8 year old Bridger stopped to pick up a large, intact snake skin.

“It’s gotta be a rattlesnake,” exclaimed the young reptile lover. “Check out the head shape. I’m sure he’s still around here somewhere!”

“Well that’s just awesome,” I muttered to myself sarcastically. The translucent casing Bridger carried proudly with him made me wonder what I’d do if we ever encountered a rattlesnake still in its skin. Would I be able to identify it if its rattler wasn’t visible? What should we do? The Great Basin rattlesnake is the only species in our neck of the desert, and it was time to re-acquaint myself with the elusive pit viper.

Local wildlife experts referred me to Jim Dix of Reptile Rescue Service, a Salt Lake City based removal operation that serves the entire state. Jim and I agreed—the best way for me to learn about the rattlesnake was to meet one face to face.

“You can get right up here,” Dix reassured me after lifting the serpent from a bucket with a hook and pinching its mouth shut between his thumb and forefinger. “He’s not going anywhere.”

Bridger and his younger brothers Weston, 7, and Coulter, 4, stepped up without hesitation. Apparently the instinctual fear of snakes that anthropologists believe humans developed for survival purposes and retained through millennia doesn’t apply to them.

The boys eagerly accepted Dix’s offer to pet the creature, which curled slowly as he gripped it with ridiculous ease. I reluctantly followed suit. Dix had briefed us thoroughly on the snake before showing it to us, but no amount of factual knowledge about Crotalus oreganus lutosus can compare to the experience of actually running your fingers down its spine.

The Great Basin rattlesnake’s layered scales are hardy and reminiscent of sunflower seed shells. Its olive-brown base coloration is accentuated by a prominent line of dark, oval-like dorsal blotches. Its head is uniquely triangular, its tail tipped by series of nested buttons that form the legendary rattle.

Even more interesting than its appearance is its sensory system. The rattlesnake is extremely sensitive to ground vibrations created by other animals. It has no olfactory sense, but it “smells” by collecting molecules on its tongue and transferring them to an dedicated receptor on the roof of its mouth. Depressions below its nostrils detect radiant heat, allowing the rattler to accurately sense and target vulnerable parts of its prey.

Simply put, it’s one cool snake. So cool, in fact, that its innocuous relative, the Great Basin gopher snake, seems to have made rattlesnake impersonation the very purpose of its existence. The gopher snake is skinnier and has a smaller, bullet-shaped head, but it sports a dorsal blotch pattern that’s strikingly similar to that of the rattlesnake. And although lacks a rattle, it has learned to mimic the rattlesnake by vibrating its tail when it feels threatened.

Dix said that most of the rattlesnake calls he gets from Tooele County turn out to be gopher snakes. One of his goals is to educate the public on the differences between them. He also believes increased awareness of the rattlesnake’s nature will benefit both man and snake. Most bites, he said, can be avoided. In fact, avoidance is the rattlesnake’s primary goal.

So what should you do if you encounter one? Different sources offer similar advice, but Dix actually handles rattlers on a daily basis, so I put more stock in his. First, determine the snake’s location and distance from you. According to Dix, the average strike zone is 3 feet. Outside of that radius, it’s safe to slowly back away, keeping in mind that other rattlers may be close nearby.

Within a 3 foot radius of the snake, stay put. Wait for the snake to uncoil and back away on its own.
“They don’t want to have an encounter where they bite you,” Dix explained. The rattle is a generous warning. When bites do occur, Dix said one third of them are venomless “dry hits.” The rest inject some percentage of hemotoxin, which causes massive tissue damage.

“[There’s] hemorrhaging, your blood cells explode—stuff like that,” Dix explained.

Bites from baby rattlesnakes can be even more serious since they haven’t grown rattles yet and their venom isn’t regulated.

In the case of any bite, Dix warned against popularized treatment methods like tourniquets, snake bite kits, and sucking venom from the wound. Skip those and call 9-11, then get to a hospital quickly. Restrict movement, and if possible, keep the bite area below the chest. Rattlesnake anti-venom can take up to 45 minutes to prepare and administer.

Dix said most bite cases are the result of naiveté or intentional provocation, and are still a rare occurrence. Still, one would be wise to keep an eye out for them. They’ll spend evenings basking on the sides of roads. Dix said Skull Valley tends to be a rattlesnake hotspot. Having emerged from hibernation later in the spring than usual, our rattlers are now settling into feeding mode. As “sit and wait” hunters, they’re more likely to be spotted under rocks or wrapped around sagebrush. Mid-summer sightings are more common between 8:00 – 11:30 in the morning.

The boys and I bid farewell to our new scaly friend as Dix set it gently back in the bucket. My fear had evolved into more of a healthy respect. If we ever see him on the trail, I hope that respect is mutual.


2 responses to “Fear, curiosity mingle when snakes and humans cross paths

  1. Camille

    July 20, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    I really enjoy your articles. I’ve lived in Tooele County all my life and like to hear about all the places I never knew where here. Is there public access to the aviation arrow in Lake Point?



    • bonnevillemariner

      July 21, 2010 at 6:04 pm

      Hi Camille-

      Thanks for the kind words. Unfortunately, the arrow at Lake Point is on private property. It’s in an area fenced off with barbed wire and ‘No Trespassing’ signs. There are, however arrows close to you that are publicly accessible. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for info on that front.


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