What’s Lurking Around the Valley? Snakes, Gila Monsters and More
Excerpt from “Valley 101: A Slightly Skewed Guide to Living in Arizona,” a collection of Clay Thompson’s columns for The Arizona Republic. (Originally published April 2, 2000.)
Q: Since we moved to Arizona, my daughter and I have become avid hikers. The other day we saw our first rattlesnake. How many kinds of rattlesnakes are there around here?
A: I hate to tell you this, but there are a lot of them. And not just rattlesnakes. There are coral snakes, and a lot of others, including Gila monsters and killer bees. We’re not supposed to call them killer bees anymore. Africanized bees is the term. Call ’em what you like, they’re not nice neighbors.
The good news is your chances of being bitten or stung or otherwise killed by any of these creatures are fairly small, unless you’re a dope or just naturally unlucky. A study a few years ago showed, as I recall, that the primary victims of rattlesnake bites are young, White males who had been drinking. Of course, the primary cause of a lot of problems is young, White males who have been drinking.
Snakes: There are 11 species of rattlesnakes in Arizona and, for the most part, they are best left alone. Technically, they are pit vipers, which have triangular heads, large fangs and pupils that resemble vertical slits. Much like some editors I’ve had.
It’s not surprising that you saw a rattler recently. They emerge for the season in March and April. During the summer, they are more active at night.
If you’re hiking or climbing, don’t put your hands where you can’t see. Rattlers, affectionately known as buzz worms, don’t always rattle before they strike, and yes, baby snakes can be venomous.
You don’t even want to know about coral snakes. They don’t have fangs and they don’t have slitty eyes and instead of injecting venom in one quick shot, they chew on you for a while. Gross.
Coral snakes have black snouts and red, yellow and black rings. Other, harmless snakes have similar colors, but their snouts aren’t black and the red and yellow bands don’t touch. If the red and yellow bands touch and it just chewed on you, man, you’re fried. Get some help right away. Don’t call me to tell me to say you hate the Phoenix temperature range chart and, oh, by the way, you just got chewed on by a coral snake. Get to a doctor.
Gila monsters: I actually saw a Gila monster once at Squaw Peak Park. Some young, White males who had been drinking were throwing rocks at it.
Gila monsters are the largest U.S. lizard, up to 22 inches, and the only venomous U.S. lizard. They’re shy, slow-moving things and would be quite happy if you didn’t stop and say, “Hey, there’s one of them Gila monsters. Watch me swing it by its tail.”
Legend has it that Gila monster venom is especially toxic because the lizard does not have an anus and secretes waste through its mouth. (I hope you’re not reading this over breakfast.) This isn’t true, but its venom is considered to be at least as toxic as that of most rattlesnakes, and if you did manage to tick one off to the point that it chewed on you, you should get some help right away.
There’s more — scorpions and black widows and brown recluse spiders. My advice would be to either stay home, which wouldn’t be much fun; take care and use common sense; or keep a young, White male who has been drinking with you at all times and let him get chewed on.
I’ve lived in Arizona for 50 years and seen only one Gila monster in all that time, up in Cave Creek. They really would rather leave you alone if you’ll let them. That’s true of most rattlers, too, but it’s not always possible to leave them alone. They have a way of thinking they have a right to be anywhere they wanna be. Just watch where you put your feet and hands. If you’re on horseback, you’re less likely to see them because the vibrations caused by your horse’s hooves as it moves along alert the snake to the approach of something potentially unfriendly and it will slip away to safety before you reach it, if it can.
For a time, my parents lived in the area between Cave Creek and New River, adjacent to BLM land. In the Spring, the area crawled (yes, pun intended) with rattlers, some of which were longer and thinner than a Diamondback, and slightly reddish in color. The cowboys who worked cattle on the BLM land leased by Apache Springs Ranch, at the time, called them “rose rattlers”. After searching reptile books at the library and articles online, the only thing I found that resembles them is the Red Diamond rattler, but the Red Diamond has a more pronounced pattern, doesn’t appear to have the slender, long body, and is supposed to be confined to a small area in southern California. Those “rose rattlers” were extremely aggressive. The cowhands said two things of them: 1) they were more likely than not to strike without rattling, and 2) if you saw one, you’d better look around carefully because there was almost certain to be at least one more in the immediate area. I verified those two things the hard way. I’ve always wondered what they actually were.
As for the remark about editors… heheheee
I’m told that the ‘Green Mohave’ rattler is a unique member of the rattler family, and especially dangerous. Any thoughts, tips, etc ?
The Mojave has a unique venom that contains an additional component that is not included in the venom of other rattlesnakes. That extra component makes its bite far more toxic than the bite of any other type of rattler. It’s also my understanding that the Mojaves that are found in south-central Arizona only don’t have that extra component while the rest of the Mojave population does.
The Mojave may be greenish colored depending on where it lives, but don’t assume that a snake that isn’t green isn’t a Mojave.
The Mojave is not endangered, is not protected in Arizona. Like other rattlers, it does its part in rodent control in the area where it lives.
Best advice: As with any rattler, respect and avoid the Mojave whenever possible. Don’t kill it unless you have no other option. If you get bit, don’t fool around. Go straight to a doctor – preferably the nearest emergency room.
That’s my two cents. 🙂
Thanx Sarah !
Curious as to if the GreenMohave bite requires a ‘special’ anti-venon for treatment ?
You’re welcome, Ray.
I’m not a medical expert, so you may want to just ask your doctor about this or research it in some other way, but I do know that an antivenin that includes the Mojave venom has been available for about 10 years. I was told by a paramedic that, to be on the safe side, because the makeup of rattlesnake venom varies from one species to another and from one geographic area to another, even within the same species, and because most bite victims have no idea what species of snake bit them, most are now being treated automatically with the newer antivenin that includes the Mojave venom.
I like this article! My husband and I are avid hikers that are out almost every single day. Weekdays at Squaw Peak and weekends traveling this amazing state. For the first time EVER, we had a rattler lunge at us. My husband was leading a hike through Boynton Canyon in Sedona, the dog was behind him and I was behind both of them. I heard something I thought was an upset bird and then all of a sudden saw my husband turn and yell and run like I’d never seen. The rattler was ON the trail coiled up and I think we all scared each other. The thing LUNGED at him, and its entire body left the ground. My husband didn’t see that part because he had turned to run. I’d never seen one that upset, as most of the time they just look at you and let you pass as long as you don’t mess with them. So always be watching the trail in front of you!
We’ve seen lots of spiders, chuckwallas (larger lizards, not harmful) and tarantulas which are neat! Safe hiking/exploring folks! 🙂
What do you mean stay at home????? Good grief Charlie Brown! I went to bed one night and it felt like something was crawling on my face. I brushed it away and it happened several times. I turned on the light only to find that a black widow was in the air vent in the ceiling above my head and about 100 little babies had just hatched and were coming down to say HOWDY! We were wacking spiders like crazy and I refused to sleep in the bed that night. Another time, I was getting my then 8 year old son ready for school. His shoes were by the front door and when I picked up one of them, I felt the sticky Black Widow web. Sure enough, she was in his shoe. When we went hiking, the only thing I ever saw was harmless lizards. I often felt safer camping out than at home, except for the crazy prospectors who roamed around the Bradshaws. Now THEY were dangerous!