By CJ Carmen
Snakes are beautiful animals that are a vital part of the environment. While some snakes are venomous, and therefore potentially dangerous, most are harmless creatures that can be captivating to watch, and interesting to learn more about.
It is important to note that perhaps the most beneficial service that snakes provide is rodent control. Rodents carry dangerous and even lethal viruses, bacteria, and other forms of pestilence. About 12-15% of all deer mice may carry the dreaded Hanta virus, and while less than 1% of all venomous snake bites in the United States lead to death, depending on conditions and circumstance, as much as 60% of people infected with the Hanta virus die. Another serious problem is Bubonic Plague, which is transferred to humans by rodent fleas and can be further spread to other humans through secondary infections like Pneumonic and Septicemic plagues. As much as half of all US cases of plague are in New Mexico, and 12.8% of New Mexico cases end in death. Note: since you do NOT have to be bitten by a rodent to be infected, snakes are a far better choice to have around.
There are additional interesting facts as well:
- Out of 50 states, all but 4 have rattlesnakes. Nearly 1/3 of all venomous snake bites are "dry" bites, meaning no venom is injected.
- Of all recorded envenomations annually, over 60% are to young children and intoxicated adults, and nearly all of these appear to have attempted to grab the snake.
- Only 10-15 people per year actually die from snake bites in our country, and most of these are extremely young, elderly, or have other problems that cause complications.
- Most snakes, can, in fact, only strike 1/2 to 2/3 the length of their body, but assume they're longer than they look to be safe.
- New Mexico actually has 8 species of rattlesnakes, though the Prairie and the Western Diamondback are the most common.
- Statistics show that the vast majority of people in our country will never even encounter a venomous snake. However, for those of us who do, there are precautions (see below).
- Proper footwear, like high top hiking shoes and boots, offers substantial, but not complete, protection.
- Step ONTO logs and rocks, NEVER OVER them... you don't know and can't see what's on or under the other side.
- DO NOT PUT YOUR HANDS WHERE YOU CAN'T SEE... ledges, animal holes, etc., can be dangerous places.
- Rocks, boards, and sheet metal hide snakes. Always use a tool to lift them or turn them over.
- Do Not Try to Kill, Catch, or Harass a venomous snake. It can't bite you if you leave it alone!
- Do not hike alone.
- Know your local snake species, and be able to identify them on sight.
- This is the most important: WATCH WHERE YOU ARE WALKING.
- If you do encounter a potentially venomous snake, you can still admire it once you step, not jump, back and are several feet away... there may be more than one snake.
- Remain as calm and still as possible. This can be harder than it sounds, but it really is the most important thing you can do.
- IMMEDIATELY remove any rings, bracelets, watches, etc, that may restrict flow of blood when swelling starts.
- DO NOT CUT over bite or puncture wounds.
- DO NOT use a tourniquet, or otherwise restrict blood flow.
- DO NOT use ice, or ice water. Most snake venom destroys tissue, and the ice can make it worse.
- DO NOT use electrical shock. This may sound odd, but many people believe this helps, but there is really no value to it, and it can cause more damage.
- Sucking the venom out either by mouth or device will not help enough, don't bother.
- Have someone else drive to seek medical attention, as you may not make it there on your own.
- DO NOT WAIT to see if "maybe it was a dry bite." Time means tissue, and the quicker you get to medical assistance, the less damage the venom can inflict.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES ON LOCAL SNAKES
NOTE: a great many snakes resemble rattlesnakes until you look more closely. While there are certainly more species that can be identified, these are some of the more common ones. It is also interesting to note that every species of snake on this page has been known to "rattle" its tail, a defense mechanism called "mimicry". Do not assume that a snake is, or is not, a rattlesnake simply by the way it shakes its tail. Rattlesnakes can lose their rattles, and other snakes may act like rattlesnakes. Please, know your local snakes and be able to identify them. Typically, rattlesnakes will have a diamond, or triangle shaped head, while other snakes will have a more narrow, and longer shaped head.
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake
Coloration can vary, though usually a gray, light brown, or tan background, with darker and highlighted "diamonds" down the back. Also frequently called "coon-tail rattlers" because of the obvious black and white bands on the tail above the rattles. Obvious triangle-shaped head, readily rattles when approached. Typically one of the larger and heavier snakes found in the area, can reach lengths over 8', though 2-5' seems to be most common, with 6'+ specimens also being seen with some frequency.
The most common rattlesnake locally. Usually greenish background with brown saddles down the back, but may vary to light brown with darker brown saddles, or even take a reddish or whitish coloration. Typically less than 4 ft, with 2-3 ft being most common. Does NOT rattle readily; it is possible to approach very closely without being aware of its presence. Triangle shaped head, though smaller and less pronounced than the diamondback.
Western Terrestrial Garter Snake
Frequently seen near water, usually brown with checkered pattern or stripes down its back. Non-venomous. Many people think that they may be "water moccasins" and kill them readily; truth is that there are no venomous water snakes locally. However, all snakes drink water, so be careful anyway. Long, thin shaped head, rarely over 28 inches.
A second garter, the Blackneck Garter (Thamnophis cyrtopsis), has also been documented in Los Alamos County.
Bullsnake or Gopher Snake
Often mistaken for rattlesnakes, will even shake it's tail when threatened, although it does not have rattles. Typically yellowish or light tan background with brown or even reddish saddles down the back. Long, thin shaped head. Excellent rodent feeder, very beneficial snake in rural communities. This snake can be most impressive, as it is not uncommon to find them nearing 8 1/2'.
Western Coachwhip or "Red-racer"
This snake comes in many colors, though the common local variety is pink, red, brick, or coral in coloration. Large eyes, almost appears to have an "angry" expression on it's face. While the red variety can be striped, banded, or even mottled in coloration, two other less-frequently seen local variations are blackish, and even a tan coloration. These two color patterns tend to be more uniform and have less patterning than the red. Very long tail, some myths even talk about people and farm animals being "whipped to death" by this snake, or this snake chasing down vehicles and whipping holes into tires. This is not true, and this snake is actually harmless... although they do tend to be more than happy to bite when grabbed. Extremely fast. Adults can be anywhere from 3' to nearly 7 1/2' in length.
Small, secretive little snake. Yellow or light tan background with darker saddles down its back. Its nose is turned up, giving it a weird facial expression. Rarely over 2 feet long. Will hiss readily when approached, but can also play dead very well. Found in lower-elevation areas surrounding Los Alamos.
Great Plains Rat Snake
As the name implies, this is a good snake to have around for rodent control.
Lampropeltis getula splendida
Mostly a blackish or very dark brown snake with yellow or whitish speckles throughout the body. The head is usually very dark. Can reach 5 ft. long. One of few local snakes that does not somewhat resemble rattlesnakes. For people afraid of rattlers, this snake is actually your best friend... they EAT rattlesnakes, and other snakes too! Found in lower-elevation areas surrounding Los Alamos.