So Shaun Vought and I, are planning a trip to Arizona in a few weeks and I found myself flipping through some old photographs from my trip last year. Anyone who is passionate about seeing snakes in the wild, knows that Arizona is one of the best places to do it here in the states. The Sonoran Desert has a very broad range of the reptiles, amphibians and bugs that herpetology fanatics typically target, and if the time, location and conditions are just right, the experience is nothing short of intoxicating.
Arizona is home to 13 different species of rattlesnake alone! Many people don’t realize that one rattlesnake is any different from another, but there are several unique characteristics (some subtle and some obvious) that separate them. I hope one day to be able to find all 13 and post pictures, but I’m happy to share what I do have so far.
Introduction to Arizona Rattlesnakes
Let’s start with one of the premier icons of the West. If you’ve ever seen a rattlesnake in a movie, it is very likely that the critter you saw slither across the screen, was a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). These are the largest of the Arizona rattlers coming in at a little over 6 feet in some rare cases. They have fairly toxic venom and copious amounts of it. Hollywood would have you believe that these snakes are aggressive, blood-thirsty man-killers, but in reality, they are typically quite subdued and would rather crawl away than confront a human.
The round holes you see on the front of this young specimens face, are not nostrils, but heat recepting pits used to detect tiny variations in temperature to identify prey. These pits are unique to all pit vipers.
These snakes have big heads and the legendary diamond pattern on their back. As with all Arizona rattlesnakes, the tail ends with a noticable rattle. Western Diamondbacks are in part, identified by their evenly spaced black and white “coontail” just above the rattle.
Though typically smaller than the Western Diamondback, the similar-looking Mojave (sometimes spelled Mohave) Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) is renowned for its uniquely toxic venom. Most North American pit vipers have venom consisting of toxins that effect the blood (hemotoxins), but the Mojave’s venom has predominately neurotoxic components, which effect the nervous system similar to Coral snakes, Cobras and Kraits. Drop for drop, the Mojave is considered to be the most venomous pit viper in the U.S. and (in my experience) it generally has an attitude to match.
You can kind of see why these snakes are sometimes referred to as the Mojave Green, since it is commonly tinged with greenish hues. Though these snakes generally have a coon tail as well, you notice that the black bands are typically thinner and sometimes incomplete.
Notice this young snakes tail. Baby rattlers are born with a single button at the end of their tail. This one has only shed once and now has two buttons. Contrary to popular myths, babies do have rattles, so one should never kill snake under the impression that it simply hasn’t grown it’s rattle yet.
You’ve likely noticed by now that we find many of these snakes on the road. As avid conservationists, we go out of our way to move them out of harms way, when given the opportunity. Here, the legendary Shaun Vought, is moving a Mojave Rattlesnake off of a road and into safer habitat.
One of my all-time favorites of all the rattlers is the Blacktail (Crotalus molossus). They have a strikingly beautiful pattern with high contrast and are amongst the more gentile of the buzztails and are generally slow to anger. As the name suggests, this rattler can be identified by the black section of scales above the rattle.
Can you see why I love these guys? Simply stunning!
Banded Rock Rattlesnake
Believe it or not, some people actually keep rattlesnakes as pets! As a die-hard venomous snake fan, I can understand and appreciate the allure to keeping one, but feel obligated to admit that in most cases, this is a very bad idea. Only the most experienced, educated and extraordinarily cautious people should ever consider this practice; and only then, if they live in a state, county and city that allows it. Unfortunately, that is not the case, which is one reason why the Banded Rock Rattlers, (Crotalus lepidus klauberi) amongst other montane rattlesnake species (Arizona Ridgenose and Twinspot), are now protected in Arizona. These rather small and attractive serpents are often illegally collected for personal use or sold on the black market, domestically and overseas.
Most snakes are rather secretive. I would never have found this one in its shallow hiding spot, if it hadn’t offered its tell-tale warning once I walked past it.
Desert Massasauga Rattlesnake
Speaking of protected species, here is another rattler that is on the “Do not touch” list in Arizona. Many locals spend countless hours and miles looking for these rare animals without finding them. Shaun and I were lucky to find this one on the road one morning. Desert “Massies” (Sistrurus catenatus edwardsii) are part of the pygmy genus and are quite small with a less than obvious rattle. Though diminutive in size, they make up for it in attitude. This one did not seem to want our help getting him off the busy road, but we persevered and he went reluctantly on his merry way.
Sidewinders (Crotalus cerastes), though common, are always fun to find. Their unique locomotion is as elegant as any animal I’ve ever witnessed. On sand, they glide effortlessly, and on pavement they almost look like they are floating. With prominant scales over each eye, their “horns” give them a personality (if sinister) rare in most other rattlers. Their venom, by comparison, is relatively weak, but is still nothing to mess with. A bite from any rattlesnake is bound to make you have a very bad, very expensive week, with residual pain that could last months.
Rattlers, by definition, have very poor muscle control and are rather sluggish in most instances other than striking. However, Sidewinders buck the trend and are surprisingly agile compared to their close relatives. I noticed, as you see, that they will often climb into small bushes to hide from predators if threatened.
Great Basin Rattlesnake
The Great Basin Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus lutosus) is what I affectionately call the box of chocolates rattlesnake. This is a rattlesnake wildly under-appreciated for its variability. With many species of snakes, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all (more or less), but not so with this little gem. Even within a single den site, individuals may look drastically different. I have seen orange, yellow, silver, tan, brown, black, etc. etc. They have a small range in Arizona, and I have yet to actually find one there, but I have come across several in both Utah and Nevada.
This is a photo of me (Jamison Hensley) working with a Great Basin Rattlesnake in Great Basin National Park in Nevada. Bryan Hamilton is the biologist for the park and invites me and other herpetology enthusiasts to help him with an annual survey.
It is not often that you get to witness an animal like this feeding in the wild, which made this find quite interesting to me. The prey item is a Kangaroo Rat which the snake swallowed down at a record pace. Snake are extremely vulnerable with a mouth full of food, as they have no way to protect themselves.
I hope to have more to add to this post (or perhaps I’ll create another) in a month or so, after my next Arizona trip. Rattlesnakes on my target list, will be Speckled Rattlesnakes (Crotalus mithcelli), Arizona Black Rattlesnakes (Crotalus cerberus), Tiger rattlesnakes (Crotalus tigris) and Ridgenose Rattlesnakes (Crotalus willardi). I’ve been waiting years to observe some of these critters in the wild, and am extremely excited for the adventure.
Rattlesnakes are fascinating animals, and deserve our utmost respect. If you happen to see one in the wild, it is best to keep a safe distance and observe or photograph it if you like. These unique and highly evolved reptiles are not the nefarious demons they are portrayed to be. They only bite to eat, and to defend themselves. Accidents do happen when, for example, a unobservant hiker and a rattlesnake are unaware of each other until it’s too late, but the vast majority (around 80%) of bites happen when someone (usually a 20 to 30 year-old male, who has been consuming alcohol) either tries to catch or to kill one of these magnificent creatures.
Feel free to post comments or questions here and we’ll make sure they get answered. We wish you all a safe journey and hope to see you around soon.