Bull rattlers and other bull…

Posted on August 30, 2010 by Tim 2 Comments


Snakes have to be one of the most misunderstood animals. I hope to create a greater understanding and maybe debunk some of the many myths surrounding these creatures. I remember a few years ago I was at my local, and semi-rural, post office and walked in on a discussion about rattlesnakes. One of my neighbors exclaimed with authority about our 3 species of rattlesnakes. I tried to tactfully interject that around here we only have one species, the western-pacific rattler, Crotalus oreganus. Not to be deterred, the resident insisted we had 3; the diamond-backed, the timber, and the creek rattler. Understandably, he was incorrect. Many rattlesnakes have diamond-shaped patterns. And most species have a lot of color and pattern variation. But this type of misinformation is what I needed to correct. I told him diamond-backs (Crotalus atrox) are found in south-central states and just barely reach into southeast of California. Timbers (Crotalus horridus) are a threatened species found in the eastern U.S. And lastly, there was no such thing as a ‘creek rattler’. Well, that ended the conversation as the resident walked away sure of his expertise.

The common gophersnake, Pituophis catenifer.

Today’s title has to do with another myth. Throughout much of the southern and western states lives two very closely related species, Pituophis catenifer (more western) and P. melanoluecus (more eastern). They go by a number of overlapping common names; bull snake, gopher snake, and pine snake. These snakes are frequently mistaken for rattlesnakes and are often killed. The snakes are harmless, large growing, rodent eaters. However, to the uninitiated their defenses can be quite intimidating. When threatened they can mouth gape, hiss, and vigorously rattle their tail tips in dry leaf litter – mimicking a rattlesnake. If you were to ignore this feint and pick up the snake the most that is likely to happen is the snake would poop, or musk, on you. However, a common myth is that these snakes are hybridizing with rattle snakes, producing a deadly but rattle-less denizen. This, my friends, is BS.

The western pacific rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus.

However, this doesn’t mean that it is ok to kill the real deal – rattlesnakes. North American vipers need to be left alone. They are suffering great declines due to habitat loss, extermination, and other human related factors. I remember many years ago hearing from my mid-western relatives about ‘just last year’ a boy, jumping into the local swimmin’ hole, and landing in a ‘nest’ of water moccasins. He suffered a terrible death at the fangs of dozens of snakes. As a youth I was nervous jumping into swimmin’ holes back there. As an adult I heard that same story a number of times – always last year and always involving a nest. Moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus), also more commonly called cotton-mouths due to their gaping bright-white mouth insides, don’t nest. They are relatively solitary, and a very docile snake. In fact there seems to be only 1 fatality associated with this snake in about 30 years, and likely very few deaths ever. The closely related copperhead, A. contortrix, has even fewer fatalities associated with it. This doesn’t mean the snakes are harmless. But their reputation is ill deserved. You almost have to try to get bitten by these snakes. As an aside, countless harmless water snakes of the genus Nerodia, a similarly looking snake to cottonmouths, are killed every year just because of appearance, much like the bull snakes.

The common desert sidewinder, Crotalus cerastes, blending perfectly to its environment.

Working with venomous snakes, I frequently get asked, “aren’t they dangerous?” My standard reply is “only if you get bit”. The lesson is that these snakes rarely live up to their fearsome reputation. If you’re a herpetologist you are more likely to get bitten by these animals by sheer contact. A herp photographer, well, now you’re playing with fire. But the average person has little to worry about these animals. As we encroach more deeply into snake habitats we increase our chances of coming across a rattlesnake. But the snakes are usually fairly sedentary and do everything they can to warn us of their presence. They don’t ‘want’ to bite us. They need to save their precious venom to capture food. Many rattlesnake bites are the result of people quickly coming across a hidden animal and startling it. But most bites are the result of reckless handling. Many people justify their molestation of the snakes by claiming they were protecting their families. In reality if you just avoid the snake there is no danger. Statistics show that many many bites are to young males, usually on the hand, and usually involving alcohol. The snakes aren’t dangerous, it’s the reckless people. In fact, bites frequently happen during attempts to kill snakes which is an ironic twist to the snake being dangerous. Snakes can only strike within a foot or two, depending on the size of the animal, so if you stay back, respect the snake, you won’t get bit. Each year there are about 5-7,000 venomous snake bites in the U.S. In about 1/3 to 1/2 of those bites no venom was injected. Between 1/2 to 3/4 of the bites were caused from molesting a snake. About a dozen people tragically die each year from snake bites in the U.S. Lightning kills about a hundred or more. Snakes are majestic animals that play an extremely important ecological role. They deserve to be left alone.

A Mojave-green rattlesnake, Crotalus scutulatus, resting beneath a blue yucca.


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