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The Western rattlesnake ( Croatus viridis ) is common in much of eastern Washington. It is distinguished by its broad, triangular head that is much wider than its neck, the diamond-shaped pattern along the middle of its back, and the rattles on the tip of its tail.
(photo: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)
Overall color patterns differ with habitat, ranging from olive to brown to gray. Black and white crossbars may occur on the tail. Western rattlesnakes measure 18 inches to 4 feet at maturity. Although many people talk of seeing “timber rattlers,” “diamondbacks,” and “sidewinders,” none of these occur in Washington.
The number of segments on the rattle does not indicate the true age of the snake, since rattlesnakes lose portions of their rattles as they age.
Rattlesnakes are most common near their den areas, which are generally in rock crevices exposed to sunshine. They are most likely to be seen at night and dusk during the spring and fall when moving to and from hibernation sites.
Rattlesnake fangs are hollow and are used to inject the snakes’ poisonous venom in order to stun or kill their prey—mice, woodrats, ground squirrels, and young rabbits and marmots. Their fangs are shed and replaced several times during their active season. Fangs may also be lost by becoming embedded in prey, or be broken off by other means.
Rattlesnakes cannot spit venom; however, venom may be squirted out when the snake strikes an object such as a wire fence. This venom is only dangerous if it gets into an open wound and has been used in the development of several human medications.
Rattlesnakes do not view humans as prey, and will not bite unless threatened. A rattlesnake bite seldom delivers enough venom to kill a human, although painful swelling and discoloration may occur.
|Researchers in Eastern Washington are beginning to attach radio transmitters on rattlesnakes to discover how and where rattlesnakes hibernate, as little is known about their behavior. Researchers wonder if they hibernate in groups or separately, if they tend to go back to the same winter dens years after year, or if they hibernate with other snake species. Researchers are also unclear on how many rattlesnakes there are and whether the population is growing or shrinking. The research is not purely academic. The practical result is that if researchers know how rattlesnakes migrate, they can help identify where roads, trails or other uses should be avoided.|
If you live in or visit rattlesnake country, be alert and aware of this species in order to avoid threatening it. Also know the recommended treatment steps in case a human or pet is bitten.
If you encounter a rattlesnake, move away: A rattlesnake will coil into a defensive posture if it cannot escape by crawling away. If you remain too close, the rattlesnake will usually warn you with its distinctive rattle. Its last defensive move is to strike. Remember, all of these warnings are meant to help avoid conflict. Rattlesnakes want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them.
Prevent Problems While Hiking
- To minimize conflicts with rattlesnakes while hiking:
- Stick to well-used, open trails. In brushy areas, use a walking stick to alert a snake of your approach.
- Avoid walking through thick brush and willow thickets.
- Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see.
- Wear over-the-ankle boots and loose-fitting long pants.
- Watch rattlesnakes from a distance, and be aware of defensive behaviors that let you know you are too close.
All rattlesnake bites should be considered life threatening. When someone has been bitten, time is of the essence. If possible, call ahead to the emergency room so anti-venom can be ready when the victim arrives.
If a rattlesnake bites a person or a pet, do the following:
- Keep the victim calm, restrict movement, and keep the affected area below the heart level to reduce flow of venom toward the heart.
- Wash the bite area with soap and water.
- Remove any rings or constricting items; the affected area will swell.
- Cover the bite with a clean, moist dressing to reduce swelling and discomfort.
- Shock is responsible for more snakebite deaths than the actual venom is. To treat for shock, keep the victim quiet and maintain his or her body temperature. If the victim is cold, wrap them in a blanket; if hot, cool them off by fanning.
- Get medical help immediately. Make sure the doctor who treats the victim knows how to treat snakebites and, if not, call the Poison Center at (800) 222-1222.
Things not to do:
- Do not allow the person to engage in physical activity such as walking or running. Carry the victim if they need to be moved.
- Do not cut or suck the wound, do not apply ice or cold packs to the wound, and never use a tourniquet.
- Do not give the victim stimulants or pain medications, unless instructed by a physician.
- Do not give the victim anything by mouth.
- Do not raise the bite area above the level of the victim’s heart.
Trails Snakes trails are most easily seen in sandy or dusty areas in their preferred habitats. Snake tracks may be wavy or straight lines. Surface material is usually pushed up at the outside of each curve.
Droppings Snake droppings are interesting in that you will find a capping of white calcareous deposits at one end, as in the case of birds. The size of the droppings corresponds to the size of the animal. Snake droppings are cordlike, with constrictions and undulations.
Shed Snake Skin A growing snake sheds its skin every four to five weeks. You can tell when it is ready to shed—its eyes look bluish-white and dull. Snakes may even become temporarily blinded until the old skin splits at the head, and they are able to crawl out. Shed skin looks like thin, clear plastic, with every detail of the scales still visible, even the eyeball cover. Look for shed skin under boards, in rock piles, and other places where snakes congregate.
source: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife