Oh, I Didn’t See You There! Debunking Rattlesnake Myths: They Aren’t as Scary as You Think!

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Did you know we have thirteen different species of rattlesnakes here in Arizona? Our state takes the cake! This is a short lesson to help you understand the mysterious, misunderstood, and cryptic behavior of rattlesnakes.

In the early morning twilight, I was bringing up the rear of a group of hikers. The sun had not yet crested the mountains, and, clumsy as I am, I was keeping a careful watch on my footing so I didn’t stumble in hazy light. Because I was looking at my feet, I soon saw a hazard on the trail that stopped me in my tracks. I looked at everyone hiking ahead of me, walking ahead in a single file line. Then I looked down in front of me at my friend’s boot print in the sand that was touching a coiled, but motionless rattlesnake.

I know what you’re thinking: NO WAY that happened – how could the rattlesnake not strike a single person that walked over it? But this idea – the one where rattlesnakes are mean, aggressive, and ready-to-strike – is simply one that is derived from our fears of these mysterious creatures and bolstered as a stereotype in mainstream culture. It’s probably also perpetuated by the fact that many rattlesnake stories we hear sound scary. Maybe the story involves someone feeling threatened by the rattling of a snake’s tail, or worse, a story retelling a rattlesnake bite experience. But let me tell you, these stories make up a small fraction of the number of encounters that actually happen, and rattlesnakes are, in fact, quite the opposite of aggressive. If they were humans, we might even refer to them as introverts because of their tendency to avoid interactions with humans.

Defensive might be a slightly better word to use, and likely how most would think of a rattlesnake because usually when we notice one, it’s due to the fact that they are already being defensive (likely by rattling in warning). However, the best word to use is cryptic. The reason that the stories only make up a small fraction of the number of encounters that actually happen is because in the majority of cases, you don’t even know an encounter with a rattlesnake is occurring – just like my friends who did not know they stepped over a rattlesnake, did not know that their boot touched the coiled snake.

This is because rattlesnakes practice crypsis – they are literally attempting to blend into the environment and hide by being motionless, and will continue to do so unless they feel threatened.

Crypsis is a very innate behavior for rattlesnakes – they can not only avoid predators by being cryptic, but they also catch food this way. Rattlesnakes will find animal trails and sit near them in crypsis, waiting for a mouse or some other form of prey to run along the trail and pass unknowingly by the snake that is waiting to strike and have a meal.

Are you wondering why they wouldn’t wait in crypsis to strike a human? The answer is actually simple: rattlesnakes know that humans are not prey items – we are much too big. Because it takes precious energy to make the venom that rattlesnakes use to immobilize their prey, they will avoid biting animals (such as humans) that are not prey unless they feel there is a direct threat to their life (such as if they are startled or attacked). Even when rattlesnakes do bite humans, approximately half of all those bites are dry bites where they do not inject venom. On top of that, modern medicine and the use of antivenin greatly reduce the chances of death by venom from rattlesnake bites. Less than fifteen people in the United States die each year from snake bite deaths. In many of these cases, the person dies because their bite is left untreated or they have an underlying health condition (such as an anaphylactic allergy).

I have seen rattlesnakes curled up on warm rocks in parks, sitting in debris next to trails, spread out in stumps or on logs waiting for prey to run by. At times, I’ve counted how many people walk past a rattlesnake in a busy area without realizing one is there. The answer is dozens. I have seen dozens of people pass within feet of rattlesnakes without knowing it.

This is how the greatest number of encounters happen – without the knowledge that it’s even happening!

Rattlesnakes instinctually prefer to protect themselves by remaining in crypsis rather than making their presence known by rattling. The rattling begins when they start to feel there is a direct threat – maybe someone that notices the snake and lingers too long in front of it to take a picture. However, even in these cases, rattlesnakes will most often begin their slithering retreat backwards and away from the threat while rattling. Striking is usually a last-resort mechanism for when they feel severely threatened or that they’re stuck in a place where they cannot escape.

Can you spot it? A western diamondback rattlesnake retreats away from me into the brush.

With this knowledge in your mind, please remember that if you see a rattlesnake, you don’t have to be afraid if you respect the snake’s space and follow the right steps! Maintain your cool – it’s very unlikely that you will be bitten unless you begin purposefully harassing the snake (maybe by getting too close for too long to take a picture, or by using a stick to attempt to move a snake off a trail). Give the rattlesnake some space and an escape route. If they don’t start to retreat away, give the snake a wide berth if you need to go around it. Move slowly and deliberately as opposed to quickly and suddenly to avoid startling a rattlesnake. The policy here is that “if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone.” It would be EXTREMELY unlikely for the rattlesnake to continue to approach you to try to strike – it’s just not their instinct. Their instinct is to conserve their energy by first hiding, then warning and retreating, and finally striking when faced with a threat that does not go away. Their instinct is not to chase after you to try to strike. Doing so would waste precious energy that they have to work for as cold-blooded animals, and it is energy that they cannot get back unless the conditions are right. They would much prefer to save that energy by hiding in crypsis or retreating to the closest cover.

So, are you now wondering what happened at the end of the rattlesnake encounter my friends and I had on our hike? Well, I called all my friends back to show them that the rattlesnake remained in crypsis even as multiple people unknowingly stepped over it. Once it had multiple faces looking at it, the snake felt threatened and began rattling its tail. We stepped back from it, and it quickly retreated away from us. We continued cheerfully intact and none for the worse on our hike – excited to have seen some cool wildlife, albeit perhaps with more attention to where we were placing our feet.

Below are some rattlesnake bite DO’s and DON’Ts, but you can also read Part 2 of this rattlesnake series to find more general information about rattlesnakes, how to recognize them, and which ones are around Flagstaff.

Rattlesnake bite first aid DO’s:

  • DO remain as calm as possible. Try to allow bite victim to remain still and avoid exertion.
  • DO remove any restrictive items of clothing or jewelry to allow for swelling to occur.
  • DO draw a line around the bite area and write the time next to it. Continue this in timed intervals to mark the progression of swelling.
  • DO keep the area of the snake bite below the level of the heart.
  • DO evacuate or get help quickly.

Rattlesnake bite first aid DON’Ts:

  • DON’T panic! Again, remaining calm is important.
  • DON’T apply a tourniquet.
  • DON’T apply ice.
  • DON’T cut the wound or use snake bite kits – either can do further damage.
  • DON’T try to suck the venom out.
  • DON’T administer medicine, caffeine, or alcohol.
  • DON’T wait to call for or find help!

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