All in the pit viper family - Southern California is home to six native rattlesnake species. The Southern Pacific rattlesnake, below left, the only Los Angeles Basin native, is one of the eight subspecies of the Western rattlesnake, which ranges throughout the Western states and into southern Canada.
The Mojave rattlesnake, opposite page, is rated among the world’s deadliest snakes. Its venom is an exceptionally viscous brew of proteins that disrupt the nervous system. In California, the Mojave rattlesnake is usually found in the upper desert.
The Western diamondback, right, is a large, aggressive serpent identifiable by sometimes-blurry dark brown diamonds or hexagons running down its back. It inhabits the southeast, desert tip of California and is about 8 inches at birth.
After emerging from hibernation in early spring, male diamondbacks celebrate with a ritualized combat dance, raising their heads high and pushing, shoving and even intertwining, with the winner throwing the loser to the ground in defeat.
The red diamondback rattlesnake is found from Baja California and San Diego into western Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Red diamondbacks are especially active from February to June. Watch your step on the sunny side of the hill, where these rattlers like to sunbathe.
The speckled rattlesnake inhabits rocky hillsides from sea level to 8,000 feet, from the Baja California coast and San Diego County through the deserts of eastern California. Varying in color from white to gray, yellow, brown and orange, this nocturnal snake is very territorial.
The sidewinder is famous for its twisting sidewards motion, an adaptation for moving swiftly across loose sand, such as the windblown dunes of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. Sidewinder adults are relatively small for rattlesnakes, reaching up to 2 feet, versus several feet for relatives such as the diamondbacks.
SNAKE, RATTLE AND ROLL - Fleetwood Mac’s “Rattlesnake Shake” is a favorite of local band Los Lobos.
Old blues musicians put rattlesnake rattles into the cavities of their guitars to get what Albert Collins called “a weird sound.”
CHURCH AND SNAKE - Many North American Indian tribes refer to rattlesnakes, respectfully, as “grandfather.”
Most tribes tell rattlesnake tales on winter nights, when the snakes are hibernating and not apt to bite in angry response to disparaging remarks.
The desert-dwelling Mohave tribe worshiped a giant Sky-Rattlesnake, whose blood gave birth to a Rattlesnake deity with venomous urges and warlike thoughts that were unleashed when the mountains nodded “Yes.”
In early spring, before the rattlesnakes emerged from hibernation, a Yokut shaman who had spoken with a rattlesnake in a dream would lead a procession to a den of hibernating rattlesnakes. As the Yokuts stomped and whistled, the medicine men would collect the sleepy snakes in baskets filled with eagle down. The shaman would then go into a trance lasting two to three days and induce a rattlesnake to bite him as part of a ritual protecting the village and demonstrating power over the serpent.
Another California tribe, the Yuki, juggled rattlesnakes, and many tribes used the venom to make poisoned arrows.
The Chumash had a rattlesnake dance, but more is known about Chumash rattlesnake-eating habits. If the rattlesnake didn’t get angry and bite, it was considered good eating. After chopping off the head and tail, the Chumash would roast the rattlesnake, then grind the roasted meat and sprinkle it on food.
Rattlesnakes are associated with rain by many American Indian tribes because of their resemblance to black, coiling storm clouds and the thunderous rattle of lightning strikes.
In an annual nine-day festival, Arizona’s Hopi Indians hunt snakes for four days, then perform ceremonial dances during which “snake priests” place live rattlers’ heads in their mouths. When the dancing is over, the priests scoop up handfuls of snakes and release them as messengers to carry prayers for rain to the gods.
In 1909, a Grasshopper Valley, Tenn., farmer named George Hensley literally interpreted a verse in Chapter 16 of the Gospel according to St. Mark, “They shall take up serpents,” to mean handling live rattlesnakes in church. Snake-handling slowly spread through the small mountain towns of Appalachia and even extended to California during the 1930s. Hensley died in 1955 in Florida at age 70 from a church ritual-related diamondback rattlesnake bite. Snake-handling rituals continue in parts of rural America.
HANDLE WITH CARE - Peak rattlesnake-bite season is between April and July, when County-USC Medical Center typically sees two-thirds of its snake-bite cases.
Children are statistically more likely to get bitten than adults.
With prompt medical attention, 998 out of 1,000 times the Southern California rattlesnake-bite victim survives. A victim who doesn’t get antivenin risks permanent muscle and nerve damage.
In 1997, an average year for snakebites, physicians and others reported 494 snakebites to the California Poison Control System. Only 224 bites were confirmed as rattlesnakes; nonpoisonous snakes of the exotic pet variety accounted for 42 bites, while the rest were classified as unknown. The actual number of bites is undoubtedly higher, as reporting is optional.
A County-USC Medical Center study of 227 rattlesnake-bite records spanning 10 years found that 90% of snakebite victims were male. More than half were between 17 and 27 years old, and 57% were handling the rattlesnake when bitten.
A few young men continued to handle the rattler after being bitten, sustaining multiple bites. Twenty-eight percent of these self-styled snake handlers were intoxicated.
There was only one fatality among the records reviewed at County-USC, an 80-year-old man who died of a heart attack before snakebite antivenin therapy began.
About 90% of rattlesnake bites involve the hands or the feet, which suggests, among other things, that thick leather boots and long pants are sensible precautions.
Unless you step on a rattlesnake, “you basically have to put your hand in their face before they bite you,” says one expert.
CRIMINAL VIPERS - Attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and conspiracy to commit murder are among the criminal counts that have sent would-be Southland villains to jail for putting rattlesnakes in mailboxes, packages and bedrooms. Fortunately for most would-be victims, rattlesnakes are not natural-born people-killers.
In 1978, attorney Paul Morantz survived after he was bitten by a rattler that had been put in his mailbox by assailants associated with Synanon.
In a highly publicized 1930s case, a Los Angeles man tried to kill his wife with a rattlesnake. The rattlesnake wasn’t up to the murder, so the husband ultimately drowned his spouse.
DON’T GET RATTLED! - If you find a rattlesnake hiding inside a building or have a worrisome situation short of a medical emergency, the people to call for help are the city or county animal control service. * If a rattlesnake’s bite penetrates the skin, the best remedy is dialing 911 and calmly driving to the hospital.
Native American tribes, including the Maidu and Shasta in the north, used shamanistic rituals to prevent and heal rattlesnake bites, employing everything from powdered roots and leaves to using their mouths to suck out the poison--a technique widely recommended until recently by physicians for removing venom.
Panicky behavior and physical activity pump up the adrenaline and speed the flow of venom through the bloodstream.
Don’t apply ice. Don’t use a tourniquet. Don’t cut the bite. Don’t use your mouth to suck poison (infection!). Immobilize the bitten area and keep it lower than the heart.
Solo hikers should set off slowly toward medical aid and know that if they collapse, they will likely recover.
If you must keep something on hand for bites, Linda Pope of the California Poison Control System recommends the Sawyer kit, which has a pump for removing venom.
One reason most Southern California snakebite victims survive even without amputation is that they usually arrive at hospitals within 30 to 60 minutes of the bite.
RATTLER STYLE - Rattlesnake desk plaques, key chains and freeze-dried or stuffed rattlers are available from ranchers who also sell snake meat. The Internet is rife with sites.
Snakeskin hatbands on Stetsons entered the macho mainstream after the 1980 movie “Urban Cowboy.” Snakeskin pants, dresses, shoes and purses are old hat.
MALICIOUS MICROBREW - Snake venom is a complex brew of 20 to 50 different proteins, each an enzyme with a different biological activity, such as inhibiting blood coagulation or attacking blood cells. Each species has its own unique microbrew of venomous proteins, many of which destroy or digest tissues in both humans and rodent prey.
Mojave rattlesnake bites attack the nervous system. In contrast, other California rattlesnake venoms merely cause debilitating pain, destroy muscle tissue and wreak havoc in the blood.
Rattlesnakes like to stay hidden, as they themselves are part of the food chain, hunted by owls, hawks, roadrunners, coyotes, king snakes and coachwhips, a long, slender snake that can out-crawl a sidewinder.
Rattlers prefer to conserve their venom for the rodent prey that they eat. The exception is young rattlesnakes that have not mastered the art of venom release. These babies inject their whole toxic load in one shot, inflicting some of the most venomous bites.
About 20% of rattlesnake bites are dry bites, almost devoid of venom and purely reactionary in nature.
Pigs are among the best rattlesnake predators, as their outer body fat absorbs most of the snake venom before it can enter the bloodstream.
SALVATION (SOMETIMES) - Available antivenins are effective against the local Southern Pacific rattlesnake, and County-USC keeps plenty of antivenin on hand, as one patient with a severe bite can require more than 40 vials.
The antivenins that hospitals use to neutralize rattlesnake venom are typically derived from horse blood. Snakebite antibodies are created by injecting horses with increasing doses of a mixture of venoms from several different rattlers. Eventually the animals can withstand several times the usual lethal dose with little ill effect. The antibodies are then harvested from the blood.
Since allergic reactions to the horse product can sometimes cause as much trouble as snake venom itself, new antivenins from sheep and goats are being tested.
SNAKE BYTES - Type rattlesnake into a search engine and you’ll find sites ranging from a snake-struck 11-year-old kid’s home page to a photo of a young man sporting a rattlesnake tattoo on his torso.
The San Diego Natural History Museum Web site (https://www.sdnhm.org) has a great reptile special exhibit.
PREDATOR AND PREY - Rattlers are ecologically useful. They keep rats, mice and other vermin from overrunning the landscape.
Most rattlesnakes wait patiently, up to seven days, to ambush their prey, and can go up to a year between meals. They often wait in ambush alongside small animals’ trails. Infrared-sensing organs located in deep pits in front of the eyes allow rattlers to strike a small mouse dead center on a moonless night or when blindfolded by researchers.
Rattlesnake fangs are hollow, curved teeth that the snake sheds and replaces every six to 10 weeks, making them like disposable syringes for injecting venom from glands in the upper jaw. * When not in use, the fangs neatly fold into the roof of the mouth.
Biologists believe that the eerie, sometimes bone-chilling rattlesnake rattle evolved to warn off potential predators. The rattles are made of loosely intersecting rings of keratin, the same protein as in human fingernails.
A rattlesnake sheds its skin to grow larger every 50 to 400 days, and with each shedding it adds a new rattle segment. Along the way, old segments fall off, so that even in zoos, where rattlesnakes sometimes live into their 20s, a string of more than 15 rattles is rare.
A valid California fishing license entitles the bearer to bag two rattlesnakes.
The mass roundups and rattlesnake-killing carnivals still going on in Texas and Oklahoma would not be acceptable here, says the California Department of Fish and Game.
Keeping a live rattlesnake as a pet is against the law in the City of Los Angeles and most of Southern California.
SERPENTS ON SCREEN - The first season of “Lassie” that ran from 1954-'55 featured an episode titled “The Snake.” Little Jeff got bitten. Lassie barked. Mom and Gramps identified the culprit and rushed the tyke to the doctor. Among the other notable performances coaxed out of the reptile kingdom is director John McCauley’s mid-1970s made-for-TV horror flick “Rattlers,” about chemically altered rattlesnakes that ruin an old-fashioned family outing by going on a killing rampage in a Mojave Desert campground. * Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis walk through mounds of rattlesnakes in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.”
In Steven Seagal’s “Fire Down Below,” a greedy toxic-waste-dumping corporate villain played by Kris Kristofferson dumps rattlesnakes in the bedroom of a federal agent.
In “Vegas Vacation,” trailer-trash patriarch Randy Quaid calls his box full of buzztails “the baby-sitter” because the snakes provide hours of amusement for the kids, who relish a good roundup.
A scripted rattlesnake attack was reportedly dropped from the 1973 film “Westworld” because the reptilian and human actors on the set were too spooked by each other to work together.
In “Maverick,” Mel Gibson reportedly mugged for the close-ups with a robo-rattler rather than a real one.
The social commentary gets thick in director William Grefe’s 1972 film “Stanley,” about a troubled Vietnam veteran who has trouble relating to the people back home but possesses a talent for rearing rattlesnakes, which he uses to kill his enemies.
SQUIGGLE ART - In the eastern California desert, a rattlesnake motif shows up in 60-foot-long intaglios, best seen from the air, where the dark, outer rock is carved away to expose deeper, lighter-colored rock.
SSSSSSSS SCIENCE - Rattlesnake venom proteins are medically valuable. For instance, scientists know that animals can tolerate small amounts of disintegrins, which may stop the growth and metastasis of cancerous tumor cells. Medical clinics routinely use snake venom components such as thrombocytin and ecarin to test for blood-coagulation defects.
In many parts of the world--though not the United States--drugs derived from snake venom, such as ancrod and batroxobin, are used as blood-thinning agents, and some researchers hope that snake-venom proteins will prove useful against heart attacks, stroke and neuromuscular disorders, including multiple sclerosis.
Be careful with traditional folk remedies, including dried rattlesnake meats, pills and powders, which are commonly used in Mexico for everything from cancer to arthritis. Uncooked rattlesnake meat, even sun-dried jerky and capsules of rattlesnake powder, can be contaminated with a form of salmonella found in reptile intestines.
IT TASTES LIKE CHICKEN - Rattlesnake beans, an ancient Hopi variety found in specialty and heirloom seed catalogs, have pods that twist around like a rattlesnake as they grow. * Rattlesnake meat is sold as a specialty item by ranchers who have figured out a new use for their rattler-infested lands in states like Texas.
Ask for a “Rattlesnake” and some bartenders will pour venomous doses of Kahlua, white creme de cacao, amaretto, Southern Comfort and triple sec.