Elena Asparouhova had avoided hiking on Utah’s Mount Olympus for years because of its well-deserved reputation as a haven for rattlesnakes. Her first visit to the peak rising behind Salt Lake City recently lived up to its billing when she encountered a snake coiled under a log below the summit.
What was surprising was the snake’s furious rattling, provoked by an earlier hiker who flung rocks at the venomous viper in a misguided attempt to shoo it away.
“It was a yard away from where you had to cross this log. It’s coiled ready to strike. We stayed to warn people,” said Asparouhova. “We took lunch at a pretty safe distance.”
It is the height of rattlesnake season in Utah, especially in the arid foothills of the Wasatch and other ranges. In late spring they emerge from their winter slumber in search of prey and can often be found sunning themselves on trails.
This year, severe drought has reduced populations of small rodents, forcing snakes to cover more ground. Encounters are much more common, prompting warnings from state wildlife officials to give rattlers a wide berth.
“The snakes will have to be out longer each day and expand their search area to find food,” said Kevin Wheeler, a sensitive-species biologist with the Division of Wildlife Resources.
Officials recommend leashing dogs while hiking in snake country and leaving serpents you see in peace.
Throwing things at a rattlesnake is the dumbest thing one can do short of picking it up. Antagonizing them not only endangers the next hiker coming up the trail, but it also violates state law. Killing them is a crime, save for a glaring loophole.
“The tricky thing about the law,” Wheeler explained, “is it says if people feel endangered by the snake it’s OK to kill it.”
Named for the buzzing feature on the tip of their tails, rattlesnakes will not attack without provocation; they evolved rattles to communicate to nonprey animals that it would be mutually beneficial not to mess with them. Rattlers’ chief concern is being left alone, not striking an animal it could never swallow.
“If we respect rattlesnakes,” Wheeler said, “they will respect us.”
Few critters are saddled with as much cultural baggage. Snakes appear in ancient rock art, associated with shamanistic rituals, but they get a particularly bad rap in Hollywood movies and the Old Testament, which portray them as agents of doom and moral decrepitude. For years, rattlesnakes were killed on sight, but today they are legally protected in Utah — as are all reptiles — because they play a vital role in the ecosystem by keeping rodent populations in check.
Utah is home to five rattlesnake species, the most common being the Great Basin subspecies of the Western rattlesnake, which occupies the Great Basin including the western half of Utah. The midget faded subspecies occupies the eastern part of the state.
The snake Asparouhova encountered was most likely a Great Basin rattler. These are generally smaller and more timid than other rattlers found in the West, although larger than the midget faded rattler. She estimated it to be 1 meter in length and as thick as her forearm at its midsection.
Venomous snakes are easy to distinguish from nonpoisonous ones by looking at their heads. Poisonous varieties have broad triangular heads that flare out at the jaw where they store their retractable fangs.
Rattlesnake venom is hemotoxic, meaning it attacks the circulatory system and causes hemorrhaging and tissue damage. The midget faded rattler’s venom also contains a neurotoxin, rendering its venom among the most potent of any North American snake.
The diamond patterns along their bodies help them blend in with the ground, especially if it is dappled with shade and sunlight. Harmless gopher snakes have similar markings.
Snakes’ rattles gain a segment each time they shed their skin when they emerge from hibernation. The distinctive buzz they make comes from these hollow segments vibrating against one another. Young rattlers replace their skin several times their first year, and snakes often lose rattles, making it impossible to determine their age by counting segments.
Because they are coldblooded, they move into and out of the sun to regulate their body temperature. On hot days, they are most active at dawn and dusk. On cool mornings, they often bask in the sun. Like mammals, female rattlers give birth to live babies, which arrive in late summer and are soon abandoned by the mother.
To stay safe while hiking in rattlesnake country, keep your eyes on the trail. If you step near one that lets off a buzz, don’t panic or jump. Figure out where it is and move away. If you — or more likely your dog — are bitten, stay calm and avoid exertions that elevate your heart rate, which could spread the poison around the body.
Between 7,000 and 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the United States each year. On average, five die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Modern antivenom drugs are responsible for the low mortality rate.
The key is to get medical attention as soon as possible, but don’t run. And don’t bother trying to suck out the venom. Hollywood got that wrong, too.