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Commentary by Sarah Brewer Thompson
| Saturday, Mar 1, 2014

sarahbrewerthompson_mugWith the warm weather we have been having, it seems we have skipped right over winter and jumped into spring. In the last few weeks, critters such as insects, lizards, birds and snakes have been making their way out into the sun, drawn to the warmth of these sunny days.

During this time, some helpful friends come out to enjoy the warmth, as well.

Two of the most common snake species we have in the Santa Clarita Valley are the San Diego gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer annectens) and the Southern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri, often incorrectly referred to as the diamondback).

Because they are often mistaken for one another and because of the obvious venomous nature of the rattler, it is important to be able to distinguish between the two. I hope to offer a brief rundown of some of those differences in order to save you stress if you come across one of these animals, and more importantly to save the lives of many snakes that are killed because people panic when they see anything that slithers.

Gopher snake. Photos by Sarah Brewer Thompson.

Gopher snake. Photos by Sarah Brewer Thompson.

For many good reasons, we are brought up to have a fear of rattlesnakes, or more broadly, snakes in general. While it is, of course, smart to have a healthy respect for them, it is important to keep in mind the realistic aspects of a snake.

Often when I am on the trail hiking with children and adults, some have a nearly irrational fear of these interesting creatures. For example, one woman told me she was afraid of them because she heard they could literally jump up onto your face. While it is true that snakes, including rattlers, have an impressive striking range, it is important to keep in mind that we are much scarier to them than they are to us, and unless you have your face down near the ground, pilfering through a good hiding spot, they are not, in fact, going to “jump onto your face.”

Most of the time when a snake hears you coming, it finds the nearest exit before we even see them. Living out here, however, it is not uncommon to come across one basking in the sun or taking shelter in a protected spot.

Snakes, like other reptiles, are ectothermic (sometimes referred to as “cold-blooded”), meaning they cannot regulate their own body temperatures as we can. When we are cold, we shiver, and when we are hot, we sweat. Reptiles do not have this ability; they must rely on the environment to warm up or cool down when necessary.

Heat is a vital part for these animals – they must keep their body temperature up, while at the same time not overheat. Having the right amount of heat and sunlight helps maintain normal body functions such as skin shedding and food digestion.

sarah-gophersnakeWhen you stop thinking about snakes as pests, you realize how useful they really are.

Obviously, both species are excellent critter control, eating small (or sometimes larger) rats, mice, gophers and other species we consider nuisances. You have to keep in mind the cycle that if you knock out a predator, you’d better be ready for its prey to increase in large numbers.

Surprisingly, snakes such as the gopher snake and king snake have been known to prey on rattlesnakes, if that offers any additional comfort. Another bonus of non-venemous snakes like the gopher snake is that although they can bite if threatened and cornered, they are overall not harmful to you or your animals.

A bite needs to be properly cleaned and monitored, as with any other injury, but a gopher snake bite is not life-threatening to your animal. Most of the time, however, I have noticed that my dogs do not want anything to do with (or don’t even notice) the snake and leave it alone.

There are physical aspects to keep in mind when you see a snake and are trying to assess what to do about it. If you have the option, the best thing to do is leave it alone. Put your pets in the house or another part of the yard, if possible, and the critter will eventually work its way down the road. Quite often when you see an individual, you won’t see it again. If you come across one on a trail or in a confined area, try your best to not panic, and retreat from the animal slowly. Do not charge it, try to move it or taunt it. When given a chance to escape, they will usually take advantage and leave on their own.

There are a handful of traits to recognize when you see a snake.

 

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Scale sheen and texture:

Part of the reason gopher snakes are often mistaken for rattlesnakes is that they can have similar coloring and patterning. Most of the time, people catch a glimpse of any snake and panic. However, if you can get a look at the scales – especially if the animal is in sunlight where you can see better – the scales on a gopher snake are smooth and glossy, while those of the rattlesnake are matte.

 

Head shape:

This is one of the most obvious differences between these two species. Ideally, you can see the animal’s head, body and tail, but this is not always the case – which is why familiarization of the other traits is important.

The head of the gopher snake, contrary to popular belief, is not the same size as its body, although it is much smaller and less pronounced than that of the rattler. The head of a rattlesnake is large in proportion to the animal’s neck, in order to accommodate its large glands that produce and store the venom. The head has a distinctive triangular shape, and the pupils of the eyes are a vertical slit, similar to those of a cat. The pupils of a gopher snake are circular, and the iris is often orange in our San Diego subspecies.

Not a gopher snake.

Not a gopher snake.

The nose of the rattlesnake is also distinctive in its prominence, while that of the gopher snake blends in more with the overall shape of the head. One of the mimicking behaviors that gopher snakes have taken on, however, is to puff themselves up in their body and heads to resemble a rattlesnake more closely. However, the difference of the head shape is still quite obvious when you compare the two species. (This is where photographs or visiting a nature center are extremely helpful in getting you used to what the heads really look like).

 

Length and body proportion:

While rattlesnakes can get fairly long, they are usually shorter in length than our gopher snakes. It is not uncommon to see a gopher snake that approaches 3 to 4 feet in length; however, it would be quite a find to spot a rattlesnake of that length in this area.

Gopher snakes have a long, slimmer silhouette, while rattlesnakes have a thicker, more substantial body compared to their length. Because of this increased girth, rattlesnakes appear a bit flatter than gopher snakes, which typically appear more rounded.

 

Tail:

Also not a gopher snake.

Mature rattlesnake.

Interestingly, people are often convinced a snake is a rattler, even when they do not see a rattle on the tail. This is partly because many folks have an automatic panic reaction to any snake they see – but it can also be because gopher snakes have taken up an interesting mimicking behavior. If threatened, they can shake the ends of their tails back and forth so quickly that they both look and sound like a rattlesnake. They will also coil and puff up their bodies to try their best to resemble their venomous cousins.

If you can see the tail and it tapers off to a fine point, it is not a rattler (unless you have an extremely young specimen, in which case you will know by its small size that it is a baby).

A site note: The number of buttons on a rattlesnake’s tail does not accurately distinguish the snake’s age. Certainly, it can give you an idea if you are dealing with a younger or older snake, but each button forms with each time the skin is shed, and depending on the animal’s health and diet, this can be more or less frequent than other individuals of the same species.

There is much more to know about these natives of ours. If you are interested in learning more about them, feel free to visit parks such as Placerita Canyon or Vasquez Rocks. Each park has venomous and non-venomous snakes on display, where you can really see the differences between the species.

Once you become familiar with what they look like, you will breathe easier having the confidence you know what you are dealing with. Typically there are even docents or staff available to show you one of the non-venemous species up close, so you can really get a good look.

No fears, however, for the faint of heart: The rattlers are only enjoyed only through the safety of their glass terrariums.

 

Sarah Brewer Thompson was born and raised in Agua Dulce, where she learned to love and appreciate nature and history. She is a master’s student at California State University, Northridge, and a docent at Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park. Her areas of interest are local history, archaeology and animal studies.

 

Beware this one, but not the others below.

Beware this one, but not the others below.

 

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7 Comments

  1. Chris Hulse Chris Hulse says:

    Snakes don’t have ears, ie they can’t (hear) they will feel the vibration of your walking close to them.

    • Sarah says:

      Have you ever held a snake? They do have ears, their small holes behind the eyes on the neck, kind of like a lizard.

  2. Chris Hulse Chris Hulse says:

    Snakes don’t have ears, ie they can’t (hear) they will feel the vibration of your walking close to them.

  3. My cats are taking care of them lol

  4. My cats are taking care of them lol

  5. I like the fact that we havent completly eliminated wildlife…frm my car to the train track…I need to excercise caution…what other city can say beware of…critters? Usually its muggers…

  6. Great article and quite informative Ms. Sarah

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