We only have one type of venomous snake in Southern California, but one is plenty. It’s genus Crotalus, sub family pit viper. You may know him by his street name -- Rattlesnake.
There are seven species of rattlesnake in these parts, and varieties within the species. The Diamondback is the most common and, ounce-for-ounce, the most venomous. Not that any of the others are what you’d call a prize. The venom from the Mojave Rattler, for example, attacks the victim’s central nervous system in quite an insidious fashion.
The good news is, the rattler is not gunning for you or me. He preys on the smaller mammal, rodents, usually. And more good news, in the United States, snakebites are not a common occurrence. Lastly, not that I ever plan to verify this piece of information, rattlesnake meat, apparently, tastes like chicken.
On to the bad news, of which there is plenty.
When attempting to distinguish a rattler from a non-venomous snake, don’t rely on the rattle. Not all provide an audible calling card. Some rattlers are too young, or wet, or the tail may have been a casualty of a prior encounter.
Markings and color are no guarantee either, as rattlers can look remarkably similar to our friends the bull and gopher snake.
The best indicator is the snake’s head. The shape of a rattler head is triangular, and appears to be sitting on a slender neck.
The safest thing to do when you see a snake, both from a personal and environmental perspective, is to turn around. If that isn’t possible, then from a safe distance, make some noise, stamp your feet; they are sensitive to vibration and likely to slither away. To maintain a safe distance, keep in mind that, when threatened, a rattler can strike from six feet away.
If you do get bitten, I’m going to dispense with the first piece of advice, because it seems virtually impossible: “Stay calm.” But try, and at least keep your movements to a minimum. Remove any jewelry or other possibly constricting items, because you can expect some or much swelling. Most importantly, most critically, vitally, get immediate medical attention; 911 is certainly an option. On the way to the medical facility, move the affected limb as little as possible, gently wash the wound with soap and water and apply a cold wet cloth.
You know those cowboy movies, where the hero cuts the wound and sucks out the poison? Don’t, don’t, don’t. Not only will blood clotting be a problem, but the bacteria from the mouth can make what is already a bad situation that much worse. Also, don’t ice the bite, use a tourniquet, drink alcohol, or eat anything.
In most cases, treatment will be an IV of antivenin. Antivenin is a product derived from the blood of a horse, a horse that was gradually exposed to (injected with) snake venom and thus developed specific antibodies for protection. The IV will likely be followed by a couple of days in the hospital.
All of this makes the rattler sound like a pretty evil fellow. But of course, he’s just doing his job, and his job is to stay alive. And so is ours – that, and share our mountains with all the inhabitants, as responsibly and respectfully as we can.
NOTE: This piece is a compendium of personal research and in no way should be used as a resource. For factual information, start here:
California Poison Control System: http://www.calpoison.com/public/snakebite.html