Rattlesnakes abound in the Anza Valley

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This rattlesnake is well-camouflaged in the dry grass and difficult to see. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

Rattlesnake sightings and interactions have been increasing since the spring in the Anza Valley. As the temperatures increase, so do the reptiles’ activity levels.

So far this season, there have been dozens of reported rattlesnake sightings. The animals are becoming more mobile as the weather warms and it’s up to residents and visitors alike to be on the alert for unintended contact. The winter rains resulted in an explosion of the snakes’ preferred prey – small rodents like mice, rats and ground squirrels. In turn, this surge encourages the serpents to move about in search of food.

To hunt, a rattlesnake utilizes heat-sensing organs on each side of its face, called “loreal” pits that help them locate prey. Snake species that have these organs are called pit vipers, a group that includes rattlesnakes, water moccasins and copperheads.

Rattlers have dead skin “buttons” on the end of their tails that form a rattle that makes noise when the snake vibrates its tail in fear or anger. They can warn against contact – or not. Sometimes a rattler does not rattle at all and may strike nonetheless.

Rattlesnakes are also potently venomous; however, bites to humans are not all that common. But when a bite occurs, the results can be devastating. The venom damages tissue and affects the circulatory system by destroying skin tissues and blood cells and by causing internal hemorrhaging. Scarring, bruising, localized pain, massive swelling, discoloration and blood degeneration as well as nausea and vomiting can occur.

These bites are to be avoided. Though rarely fatal to humans, if untreated by health care professionals, rattlesnake bites can cause all kinds of other complications that must be addressed.

Rattlesnakes give birth to live young and are therefore considered ovoviviparous. It means that females produce eggs and retain them inside their body until the eggs hatch, at which time she will give birth to fully developed baby snakes. Ovoviviparous reproduction means a higher survival rate for the offspring, as the creatures do not leave their defenseless eggs to be eaten by predators.

Johnathan Schmidt of the Southern California Buzztail Preservation group advocates relocation, avoidance and a huge dose of common sense when dealing with these creatures.

There are several species of rattlesnakes in Southern California, including the Speckled (Crotalus mitchellii), Red Diamond (Crotalus ruber) and Southern Pacific (Crotalus oreganus helleri) species. All are venomous.

If someone suddenly find themselves in the company of a rattlesnake, remain calm and think carefully. Slowly move away from it and keep some distance. The snake will not chase people; the creatures want to be left alone, Schmidt said.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife offered advice for dealing with rattlesnakes:

Be alert. Like all reptiles, rattlesnakes are sensitive to the ambient temperature and will adjust their behavior accordingly. After a cold or cool night, they will attempt to raise their body temperature by basking in the sun midmorning. To prevent overheating during hot days of spring and summer, they will become more active at dawn, dusk or night.

Wear sturdy boots and loose-fitting long pants. Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking through brushy, wild areas. Startled rattlesnakes may not rattle before striking defensively.

When hiking, stick to well-used trails. Avoid tall grass, weeds and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide during the day.

Do not step or put your hand somewhere you cannot see. Step on logs and rocks, never over them, and be especially careful when climbing rocks or gathering firewood. Check out stumps or logs before sitting down, and shake out sleeping bags before use.

Never grab sticks or “branches” while swimming in lakes and rivers. Rattlesnakes can swim.

Be careful when stepping over doorsteps as well. Snakes like to crawl along the edge of buildings where they are protected on one side.

Never hike alone. Always have someone with you who can assist in an emergency.

Do not handle a freshly killed snake, as it can still inject venom.

Teach children early to respect snakes and to leave them alone.

Leash your dog when hiking in snake country. Dogs are at increased risk of being bitten due to holding their nose to the ground while investigating the outdoors. Speak to your veterinarian about canine rattlesnake vaccines and what to do if your pet is bitten. Consider enrolling your dog in a rattlesnake aversion training course.

Discourage rattlers from your property by eliminating their food source – keep animal feed and trash contained to keep rodents away and clear brush that may be used by small animals as shelter.

There are many myths involving these snakes. It is not true that juveniles are more venomous than adults. There is no published data to suggest that baby rattlers inject more venom or that they lack control of how much venom they expend.

Gopher snakes have not crossbred with rattlesnakes, as some people claim. They are separate species and cannot interbreed.

Rattlers do not always rattle before striking, as many people commonly believe.

If you need a snake removed, call Riverside County Animal Services at 951-358-7387, or Johnathan Schmidt with Southern California Buzztail Preservation at 951-961-3332.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at dsieker@reedermedia.com.