6 Venomous Rattlesnakes in California and How to Identify Them
Published by Jack Charles on November 26, 2013
This is a great article identifying rattlesnakes. I personally have encountered a Western Rattlesnake, the most common species, on local hiking trails. Be aware now that it's heating up, they come out once it's warm. I suggest hiking early in the morning, the likelihood of encountering a snake is minimal in the cool hours of the morning.
"With nature reserves like the Joshua Tree National Park and Mount Tamalpais State Park, it’s no surprise that California is a destination of choice for many hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. As with any location, California has its own unique set of dangers to watch out for when camping, and among them are the state’s native snakes. Of California’s 33 species of snake six are venomous, all of which are types of rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes are so named after the ‘rattle’ at the end of their tail, composed of a series of hollow, interlocked keratin segments formed by the shedding of the single large scale that cover’s the snake’s tail. When shaken with a set of specialized muscles, the snake can make a sound that resembles that of a baby’s rattle, but is truly unmistakable. These rattles, however, don’t work properly for young snakes that have not shedded enough times to construct theirs, and can be severed without killing the snake. For this reason, it’s important to exercise caution any time you encounter a snake in California. Just because the snake does not appear to have a rattle does not mean that it isn’t a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes are also identifiable by their distinctive triangular head shape not shared between the states nonvenomous snakes Below are the six species of rattlesnake you may encounter in California. We’ll show you how identify them, and then discuss what to do if you find yourself in one’s presence.Crotalus oreganus
Crotalus oreganus (often called the Western Rattlesnake) is the most common venomous snake in California, and is comprised of three subspecies: Crotalus oreganus helleri, Crotalus oreganus lutosus, and Crotalus oreganus oreganus. These snakes are found from sea level to an altitude of 8,200 ft. They can be found most anywhere in the state, with the exception of the southern deserts. Their size varies greatly, from an average adult’s three foot length, to more than five feet. Western Rattlesnakes are usually dark brown, dark gray, olive-brown, or pale yellow with large black dorsal (on the sides) and lateral (along the spine) blotches with uneven white edges. The lateral blotches are generally larger than the dorsal blotches. Near the tail, these blotches give way to rings, alternately dark and light, increasing in contrast nearer the rattle. Additionally, the Western Rattlesnake has a large, dark brown blotch on its snout with a pale border behind it.Crotalus atrox
Also know as the Western Diamondback, this snake is found in the southeast corner of the state between the altitudes of 0-7,000 feet, primarily in Imperial, Riverside, and San Bernadino counties, and is widely considered the most dangerous in California because of its large size and aggressive demeanor. Crotalus atrox is responsible for the majority of fatalities resulting from snake bites in Northern Mexico, and is the second-most common culprit of fatal snake bites in the US. The Western Diamondback commonly grows to a length of about four feet, and occasionally exceeds six feet with larger specimens weighing nearly 15 pounds. They’re usually gray-brown, but can sometimes be pink-brown brick red, pale pink or yellow, or chalky white. Western diamondbacks also have a series of 24-25 brown or gray-brown dorsal blotches that take on a distinctive diamond shape near the tail, hence its name. The tail usually has 4-6 black bands separated by ashy gray bands.Crotalus mitchelli
This species is divided into two subspecies: Crotalus mitchelli stephensi, and Crotalus mitchelli pyrrhus, more commonly known as the Panamint Rattlesnake and Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake. These snakes are found from sea level to altitudes of 8,000 feet and are common throughout much of southern California, as far north as the Mojave River. Crotalus mitchelli is a medium-sized snake, averaging about three feet in length to just over four feet. They are more variable in color than the other two species discussed so far, and depend largely on the colors present in the habitat. They can be pink, gray, brown, yellow, or nearly white, and some that live near lava beds can be nearly black. The body will be marked with a vague pattern made up of dark speckled banded markings. The Speckled Rattlesnake’s tail rings will often contrast greatly with the body coloration.Crotalus cerastes
Also know as a Sidewinder in reference to its unusual method of throwing raised loops of its body to the side, propelling itself forward in an “S” shape, the Crotalus cerastes is divided into two subspecies: the Crotalus cerastes cerastes (a.k.a. the Mohave Desert Sidewinder), and Crotalus cerastes laterorepens (a.k.a. the Colorado Desert Sidewinder). This species is found between 0-5,500 feet, throughout the Southern California deserts, east through southern Nevada to extreme southwestern Utah, western Arizona, south into northeast Baja California Mexico, and the northwest part of Sonora, Mexico. Sidewinders are heavy-bodied pit-vipers, and will be immediately identifiable if moving because of their distinctive method of locomotion described above, and at rest or coiled by a horn-like scale above each eye. They are small snakes, usually between 17 and 31 inches in length. In color, they will be a pale cream, tan, brown, pink, or gray-black. The two subspecies can be distinguished by the color of the rattle segment nearest the body. The Crotalus cerastes cerastes’ nearest rattle will be brown, whereas the corresponding part of the Crotalus cerastes laterorepens will be black.Crotalus scutulatus
The Crotalus scutalalus, or Mojave Rattlesnake can be found between the altitudes of 0 and 8,000 feet, and are generally located in Southeastern California from the Colorado river near the San Bernardino county line, west through the Mojave, and north and east of the Sierras into Inyo County. Sightings have been reported west of the Colorado River in Imperial County, but are as yet unconfirmed. Crotalus scutalatus is a snake of medium size, with adults generally not exceeding 3.5 feet, but occasionally reaching four feet in length. Its color varies from green-gray to yellow, tan, olive green, and brown, and usually have a dark, well-defined, irregular diamond-shaped dorsal pattern. The dark rings near the tail will be noticeably narrower than the light rings.Crotalus ruber
Also known as the Red Diamond Rattlesnake, Crotalus Ruber is found generally between the altitudes of 0 and 5,000 feet, throughout southwestern California from the Morongo Valley west to the coast and south along the peninsular ranges to mid Baja California. This snake has some of the least potent venom among rattlesnakes but produces large amounts, so should still treated as very dangerous. Crotalus ruber is considered a medium-large species, and commonly exceeds three feet, with large males sometimes exceeding five feet. They are generally pink, red-tan, red-brown, or brick red, and have diamond-shaped blotches with light edges along the back. Their pattern is similar to that of Crotalus Atrox, but is distinguished by its color, to which its Latin name, “ruber” refers. If you find yourself next to a rattlesnake, try to go around it. These snakes will go out of their way to avoid human contact, but will strike if you get close enough to threaten it. If this isn’t possible, try stomping your feet, as in lieu of good eyesight, snakes are perceptive of sounds and vibrations and may be scared in the other direction. It’s also a great idea to carry a walking stick, that way if you discover a snake close to you, you may be able to flick it away with the stick. It’s generally not recommended to kill these snakes unless absolutely necessary, as they are an important part of the local ecosystem and control the populations of various vermin.104 "
Posted in Camping Tips Tagged Camping Wildlife, Hiking Dangers
Article written by Jack Charles