Although some 50,000 people worldwide die from snake bites each year, very few of these deaths occur in the United States. No one died in 1990, only one in 1991, and just one in 1992. Statistically, Arizona is the most likely state in which to die from snakebite, with Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama in the top five.

The only poisonous snakes found in southern California are seven species of rattlesnakes. There are no copperheads or water moccassins in Southern California, and for the most part no coral snakes, although there are coral snakes in Arizona.

Rattlesnakes bite their victims with two fangs that are hinged to swing downward at an angle of 90 to the snake's upper jaw. The rattlesnake can open it's mouth amazingly wide, allowing venom to be injected into the victim through grooves along the fangs. The amount and toxicity of venom determine the danger to the victim. For example, venom from the Mojave Rattlesnake is approximately 44 times more potent than the venom from a Copperhead; and venom from baby rattlesnakes may be 12 times more potent than the venom from adults.


First Aid for Snakebites

Not all rattlesnake bites result in the injection of venom, in fact most don't. However, because the mouth of a rattlesnake is very unsanitary, from eating small rodents, birds and other animals, serious infection, with the ever present danger of gangrene, is very, very likely. Thus, all rattlesnake bites are very dangerous and can result in death if not tended to immediately.

The injection of venom is called envenomation.

  • Mild envenomations hurt, swell, turn black and blue, and may a blister at the bite.
  • Moderate envenomations result in swelling that moves up the arm or leg towards the heart, with numbness and swelling of the lymph nodes.
  • Severe envenomations result in large jumps in pulse and breathing rates, with profound swelling, blurred vision, headache, lightheadedness, sweating, chills, and possibly death.

Because all rattlesnake bites are dangerous, the victim needs to seek medical help immediately. The degree of danger depends on the age, size, and health of the victim, how allergic they are to the venom, where they were bitten (near vital organs being the most dangerous), how deep the fangs go, how upset the snake is, the species and size of snake, and the first aid given. A person will normally know within the first 30 minutes, how serious a bite is. Remember that the after effects from any rattlesnake bite may last for months, even years.

The First-Aid guidelines below are for bites from all poisonous snakes in the United States, including rattlesnakes, copperheads and water moccasins.

  • Calm and reassure the victim, treat for shock, and keep them at rest with the bitten area immobilized and placed lower than the heart.
  • Remove rings, watches, and anything else that might reduce circulation if swelling occurs. Wash the wound, and monitor swelling.
  • Transport the victim to a doctor as soon as possible by carrying them, or, if the victim is stable, by walking very slowly.
  • Do NOT cut the wound and Do NOT try to suck the venom out by mouth. Mechanical suction for 30 minutes with a reverse syringe (e.g., Sawyer Extractor) helps if you begin suction within five minutes after the bite occurs.
  • Do NOT give painkillers, such as aspirin, tylenol or advil.
  • Do NOT apply ice, or immerse the wound in cold water.
  • Do NOT apply a tourniquet.
  • Do NOT give alcohol to the victim to drink.
  • Do NOT electrically shock the victim.


Avoiding Rattlesnakes

Following these precautions if traveling in snake country.

  • Learn to identify rattlesnakes. All snakes with pointed tails in California are non-venomous. Even newborn rattlesnakes have a rattle segment called a "button" at the end of their tails (never a pointed tail), and adults may have several rattles. Rattlesnakes also have flat and broad, or triangular-shaped heads. The pupils (black portion) of a rattlesnake's eyes are cat-like or elliptical, whereas non-venomous snakes have round pupils.

  • Be careful where you put your hands and feet, and watch where you sit and step. Most snakes are inactive and hide for protection. Because a motionless rattlesnake in its natural habitat is almost impossible to see, do not put your hands or feet in or on places where you cannot see. Also, do not depend on a rattlesnake to rattle before it strikes, as most rattlesnakes do not rattle unless frightened or endangered. Some rattlesnakes may not rattle at all.

  • Do not jump or step over logs, rocks, or shrubs. Walk around these obstacles instead. Also, be careful when turning over logs, rocks, or other large objects, as a snake may be resting underneath or looking for food. When hiking, watch where you step, stay on paths or in clearings, and avoid tall grassy areas with heavy underbrush. Look closely at the ground before crossing over or under fences.

  • Stay at least a body length away from any snake you encounter, until you are certain it is not a rattlesnake. Although rattlesnakes normally strike only 1/2 their body length, they can strike farther if they are facing downhill. Most rattlesnkes are not aggressive, but they may come towards you inadvertantly when seeking escape cover.

  • Wear loose-fitting clothes and leather boots when outdoors. Leather boots provide protection for the feet and ankles. Low-cut shoes or sandals should never be worn in rattlesnakes country, especially at night. Rattlesnake fangs can penetrate clothing, and loose-fitting clothes are better than tight styles.

Southern California Rattlesnakes


The big guys

Western Diamondback (Crotalus atrox) - This is the big snake of the San Joaquin Valley, and boy can it get big . . . up to 6 feet long and 4 to 5 inches in diameter. Overall, it is a brownish-colored snake, with lighter undersides. It gets it name from the distinctive diamond-shaped patches on the topside of the body. The Diamondback also has wide, light and dark tail bands, that are sometimes described as "coontail". It is found in arid and semi-arid places, particulary the brushy areas of prairies, grasslands and deserts. Although it's venom is not as toxic as other rattlers, it's size means it can inject quite a bit of poison. It also will hold it's ground when cornered, and coil up ready to fight at a moments notice. What is really dangerous about these guys is that many of them hardly rattle at all when they are coiled and ready to strike, the noisy rattlers having been dispatched long ago. All these things makes this one a very dangerous customer. It is active by day when the weather is cool, nocturnal when the weather is hot, and most active at dusk.

Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus ruberis) - This is the common rattlesnake of the Coast Ranges of California. It is very similar to Diamondbacks and Red Diamonds, particularly the Red Diamonds, but it is dark-colored, sometimes almost back, whereas Diamondbacks are brownish, and Red Diamonds are reddish. Also, the diamond-shaped patches on the top part of the snake tend to be less distinct than the diamonds on their cousins. However, it often has a very distinct "coontail". It tends to be smaller than the others, generally no more than 4 feet long. But once in awhile you may encounter a really big one. Unlike Diamondbacks, but similar to the Red Diamonds, it is a shy rattlesnake that tends to run, rather than stay and coil up. It likes woodlands and brushy slopes, and it is the rattlesnake you will find on the Channel Islands and in the mountains of Ventura and Santa Barbara. It is active both day and night, coming out to hunt at dusk when the weather is hot.

Red Diamond Rattlesnake (Crotalus ruberis) - This snake is very similar to the Diamondback, with the same diamond-shaped patches on the top part of the snake and the same "coontail", but it is reddish-colored, whereas Diamondbacks are brownish. It is also smaller, but it can still get up to 5 feet long. Unlike the Diamondback, it is an inoffense, mild-mannered rattlesnake that likes woodlands and brushy slopes of the southern California Coast, as well as inland areas of the Los Angeles and San Diego basins. Their range is much more restricted than some of the others, and it is quite shy, so when you see a big rattlesnake, it is more likely to be a Pacific Rattlesnake or Diamondback. It is active both day and night, becoming nocturnal when the weather is hot.

Medium-sized rattlers

Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) - This is the "mountain snake" and it is the rattlesnake you encounter in the mountain woodlands and grasslands of the Sierra Nevada and Transverse Ranges all the way up to elevations as high as 11,000 feet. It is a dark snake, sometimes almost black in color, with dark oval blotches on its back and a lighter underside. It also has a banded tail, like the Mojave and Diamondback rattlesnakes, but the bands are much more indistinct. It gets big too, growing up to 5 feet long, but the big ones are not common. It is most active during the day.

Speckled Rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchelli) - A rattlesnake of the Mojave Desert that is similar to the Timber Rattler of the Eastern U.S. It can grow up to 4-1/2 feet long, but most of them are samller. They have markings that usually resemble bands, but sometimes with diagonal or hexagonal markings. It is usually a rock dweller, but it is sometimes found in sandy areas. It is a nervous snake, active mainly at night, that is quick to rattle when disturbed.

The little ones

Sidewinder (Crotalus cervastes) - This is a small snake of the Mojave Desert, no more than 2-1/2 feet long, that is so named because of it's unusual S-shaped, "sideways slither" method of locomotion. They can move amazingly fast over the surface of the desert. Unusual horn-like protruberances above the eyes probably reduce glare. Found in sandy areas and washes, it is active mainly at night and hides during the day in rodent burrows or coiled at the base of a bush. Ounce for ounce, it has venom that is much more toxic than most rattlesnakes. However, it's small size makes it less of a danger than many of the other southern California rattlers.

Mojave Rattlesnake (Crotalus scutularis) - A very dangerous, agressive rattlesnake of the Mojave Desert that grows up to 4-1/2 feet long. It is very similar in appearance to the Diamondback, but it is greenish-colored, instead of brownish, with narrow tail bands, instead of wide bands. Because Mojave Greens are fighters, with venom that is 44 times more toxic than that of the Diamondback, they are dangerous snakes. Fortunately, most rattle loudly, whereas many of the Diamondbacks that rattle were caught and killed long ago. The Mojave Green is active mainly at night.





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