Snakebite Season : A Bumper Crop of Rattlers

Due to heavy rains this year, a bumper crop of rattlesnakes is anticipated in Southern California due, in part, to higher numbers of rats and mice, which are prime food for rattlers. Dense grass and shrubbery, also a product of the winter rains, will make it harder for hikers to spot the snakes.

Rattlesnakes, the state's only venomous snake, begin a brief hibernation in late November and are out as early as February. Averaging five to six feet long, they are found in deserts and at foothills and, in the San Fernando Valley area, have been noted especially in Sylmar, Studio City and Porter Ranch. They seek out cool, shady spots during the day, but at night seek rocks, cement or asphalt that is still warm from the afternoon sun.

Young rattlers can be especially dangerous since they are prone to release all of their venom when they bite. Last year, a 20-month-old girl was bitten by a baby rattler that crawled into her Santa Clarita Valley home, requiring an initial five vials of venom-fighting serum and another five just a few hours later. The indoor encounter was rare, however, and experts say rattlers generally will not strike unless they feel threatened.

The Southern California area has six species of rattlesnakes.

Western Diamondback

The most common in the area, has a black and white rattle with pale-bordered diamonds or hexagonal blotches. From three to seven feet long, it favors dry prairies, brushy deserts and rocky foothills.

Red Diamondback

Tan, pink or reddish relative of the western diamondback. Likes rocky brushland on both the coastal and desert sides of the mountains.

Mojave Green

Considered among the world's most poisonous rattlers, it is greenish in color and has well-defined, light-edged diamonds or hexagons down the middle of its back.

Western Rattlesnake

From 1 1/2 feet to 5 1/4 feet in length, it has dark blotches on its neck that become bands toward the tail. Habitat ranges from prairies to evergreen forests.

Speckled Rattlesnake

Has dark rings on its tail and faint designs ranging from hexagons to hourglass to diamonds. Colors vary as well, including cream, yellow, pink and brown.

Sidewinder

A desert species found in area with fine, windblown sand. Noted for moving by swinging its body in a distinctive S-shape.

The rattle:

The rattle is the single feature that distinguishes rattlesnakes from other snakes, which also vibrate their tails when alarmed. The loosely interlocked rattles are composed of keratin, the same substance that forms human hair and nails. When shaken the rattles rub against each other, producing the hissing sound audible up to 100 feet away.

Avoiding Rattlesnakes

Clear brush from around buildings.

Don't keep stacks of wood outside. They make great snake nests.

Repair leaky outdoor faucets (snakes occasionally take a drink).

Keep trash in containers with secure lids.

When walking in grassy areas, wear high boots and long pants and carry a long stick to beat the brush along the path.

Install molding on door bottoms, particularly on garage doors, and mesh wire to seal off other potential entrances.

Teach children to identify rattlesnakes so they don't mistakenly play with one.

Some rattlesnake venoms primarily attack the nervous system, while others affect the heart and circulatory system. If bitten, the person should be kept calm while help is summoned. Experts no longer advise making an incision across the bite and sucking out the venom, unless help is a few hours away.

Victim Profile

Dr. Willis E. Wingert, a County-USC Medical Center physician specializing in rattlesnakes, has seen a typical victim profile emerge through his experiences.

85% of all bites are on the hand or arm.

10% occur on the foot or lower leg.

40% of bites are accidental, such as when a hiker steps on a sleeping rattler or a child plays with one and is bitten.

The vast majority of people bitten are males between the ages of 17 and 27.

In one out of three cases, the victim is drunk.

One in five bite victims has a tattoo.

Calling for Help

If you spot a rattlesnake, back away slowly and call the nearest animal control center.

Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Malibu: (818) 991-0071

Antelope Valley: (805) 940-4190

Burbank: (818) 953-8719, after 10 p.m. (818) 953-8731

Glendale: (818) 242-1128, after 5:30 p.m. (818) 548-4840

City of San Fernando: (818) 367-7696

East San Fernando Valley: (818) 989-8445

West San Fernando Valley: (818) 989-8485

Santa Clarita Valley: (805) 257-3100

Sources: Los Angeles Animal Regulation Department, "A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians," Encyclopedia Americana.

Researched and written by Stephanie Stassel.

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