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In The Realm Of The Rattlesnake

Facts and Stats From the Serpent's Den

May 07, 2000|Joel Grossman

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.

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