Arizona is home to 11 species of rattlesnake (Crotalus spp.). They range in length from less than two to about five feet. All feed on small rodents and can live more that 20 years in the wild. Eggs stay within the mother's body until hatched. The newborn snakes need no maternal care; they have poison and the ability to strike just minutes after birth. Babies stay where they were born for the first 7-10 days until they shed their skin and gain their first rattle. These tiny rattlesnakes can be aggressive and deadly—they cannot make a rattle sound, are difficult to see, and haven't developed the ability to regulate how much venom they inject. A new rattle appears each time a snake sheds its skin—as often as three times a year for a rapidly growing youngster. The number of rattles doesn't accurately indicate the snake's age; the snakes grow at varying rates, and the rattles can break off over the reptile's lifetime.
Rattlesnakes belong in the backcountry—we can share their space by being watchful and respectful. They come out only when the air temperature is a comfortable 65-85°F, typically in the daytime during spring and autumn, and at night during summer. Like other creatures, rattlesnakes display different temperaments. Mojave rattlesnakes have a fiercer reputation than other species and may even pursue an intruder. Rattlers in the Grand Canyon and other parts of the Colorado Plateau seem relatively docile.
On rare occasions a snake will strike without warning, but more often it will just rattle or ignore you completely. They tend to be very defensive, however, and will strike if someone steps on them or gets too close. If you find yourself uncomfortably near a rattlesnake, it's best to back off slowly; a quick movement could provoke a strike. Snakes can blend in remarkably well with the colors and patterns of their surroundings, so hikers must be alert to see them. More than once the author has been asked by someone coming from behind, "Hey, did you see that rattlesnake beside the trail?" "Rattlesnake?"
Who Gets Bitten?
According to Steven Curry, Associate Medical Director of the Samaritan Regional Poison Control Center in Phoenix, "The majority [of snakebite victims] are inebriated men, frequently unemployed and almost universally tattooed." An estimated 80% of snakebite victims had been "messing around" with snakes.
The only effective treatment for rattlesnake bites is an antivenin injection, available at a hospital. Identification of the species will help in the selection of the best antivenin. To give first aid: calm and reassure the victim, remove jewelry before swelling begins, avoid movement of the affected part, keep the limb lower than the heart, wash with cold water to reduce infection risk, and get the person to a hospital as soon as possible. Despite what movie actors do, don't give any alcohol or drugs. Also, don't apply ice packs, make incisions, or use a tourniquet, as these may do more harm than good. Venom has a variety of effects, including damage to muscle tissue and the dangerous lowering of blood pressure that can damage major organs. On a happier note, many strikes are "dry bites" with no venom injected; these are more likely in brief, surprise encounters—yet another incentive not to tease snakes.
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