Rattlesnakes aren't as scary as you think: Why Arizona's famous reptile deserves respect

Shanti Lerner
Arizona Republic

James Hall loves rattlesnakes.

That’s not something you hear every day. While some people recoil in fear at the very mention of the slithering serpents, Hall, the senior reptile keeper at the Phoenix Zoo, gets excited.

“I used to come out here to Arizona during my spring breaks and look for snakes out in the desert," Hall said. "My friends would go to Disneyland on family vacations and I would be like, ‘I flipped rocks for two weeks and found rattlesnakes.’

"For me it’s the fascination of being out in the wild, seeing them out in the wild, and just enjoying the fact that I got to see one.”

Hall is originally from Washington. His father worked as a timber sales manager for the Forest Service and he often accompanied his dad and field biologists into the wilderness where they taught him about reptiles and their habitats. He chased salamanders and snakes and it was something he enjoyed so much that he made a career out of it.

James Hall shows the mojave rattlesnake to a mother and her son at the Phoenix Zoo on April 15, 2021.

Hall has been working for the Phoenix Zoo for seven years, caring for the zoo’s reptiles. One of his main jobs is to educate visitors about how rattlesnakes live and their benefits to the ecosystem.

Arizona has 13 species of rattlesnakes. As the weather heats up, rattlesnakes emerge from winter hibernation. That means people who venture outside, whether in a wilderness setting or even in their backyard, could encounter a rattler.

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What rattlesnakes do for the ecosystem 

Hall said people should take precautions and be aware of their surroundings, but that it's important to understand that rattlesnakes aren't aggressive to people. Most snake bites happen when people encroach into the snakes' space or deliberately antagonize them. 

“A lot of bites are on hands and it’s from people trying to harm them, pick them up, hitting them with sticks, so it’s really them defending themselves," Hall said.

“I always tell people, (snakes) have been here longer than we have. We are kind of in their backyard as we are putting up our homes. Just respect that they live out in the desert that we love as much as they do and they need their place in it.”

Hall notes that rattlesnakes occupy an important spot in the ecosystem and aren't simply predators.

He said research shows that rattlesnakes in Arizona have helped plant growth. Rattlesnakes eat rodents that sometimes have cheek pouches full of seeds. Through the rattlesnakes’ feces, seeds from the rodents are deposited on the ground. Snakes do not chew their food and can travel up to 10 miles before the seeds go through their digestive system. In this way, rattlesnakes participate in plant cultivation.

Rattlesnakes are predator and prey

Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, which promotes conservation of native and nonnative reptiles, says rattlesnakes also control rodent populations. 

“Man’s answer to something they are afraid of or don’t know anything about is to kill it,” Johnson said. “They (rattlesnakes) were here first. They are rodent control. Rodents have diseases that can be passed on to you and I. Snakes don’t.”

Johnson, who also has been enamored with snakes and reptiles from a young age, has made it his life’s mission to educate people on the importance of snakes. He hopes to dispel common misconceptions about this ancient reptile. 

Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, takes a break at the reptile sanctuary.

“The important thing is to educate our kids,” Johnson said. "Coming up, they are going to be the future teachers. When I was in school all we learned about was reptiles as a whole. So we figured if we can start them out young, they can work in or know more about the conservation side and what role these snakes play in the ecosystem.”

Although they are predators, rattlesnakes do get eaten by other animals. They are a food source to aerial hunters like eagles, owls and hawks. Animals on foot —including  foxes, roadrunners, coyotes and bobcats — also prey on rattlesnakes. Even the kingsnake can eat a rattlesnake. 

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Rattlesnakes in Arizona

When asked what's his favorite thing about rattlesnakes, Hall said it's their adaptability to the desert’s varied climates. 

“For me it’s that they live in every habitat of this state,” Hall said. “You can find them all the way up in tree lines at high elevations and in the open desert. They live normally where we have a very hard time spending a weekend."

According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, rattlesnakes are found only in the Americas and are concentrated in the American Southwest and Mexico. There are 36 rattlesnake species, 13 of which are present in Arizona, the most species of any state.

The most common Arizona rattlers are the Western diamondback rattlesnake, speckled rattlesnake, black-tailed rattlesnake, sidewinders and the Mojave rattlesnake.  

The albino Western diamondback rattlesnake on display at the Phoenix Zoo on April 15, 2021. This rattlesnake is unable to produce the pigment that gives snakes their coloring.

According to rattlesnakesolutions.com the Western diamondback is the most commonly encountered snake in Phoenix. It can be found in any close-by desert area and even in people’s backyards.

Speckled rattlesnakes are most common to the Camelback Mountain and South Mountain areas. They prefer to live in hillside or rocky mountain landscapes.

The Speckled rattlesnake on display at the Phoenix Zoo on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Speckled rattlesnakes are adapted to match the appearance of the dirt and rocks found in their habitats.

The black-tailed rattlesnake also likes to live in mountainous areas and can be found at up to around 3,000 feet in elevation. The ridge-nosed rattlesnake can be found mostly in the Sky Islands, isolated mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona. It can be found at elevations of up to 6,000 feet.

Sidewinders, known for the horns above their eyes and their sideways travel motion, are found in flat desert. Sidewinders don't like mountainous or rocky areas. The Mojave rattlesnake is found in desert landscapes. 

Rattlesnakes thrive in Arizona's varied climates wherever and whenever it gets warm. 

“Rattlesnakes need external heat to keep moving,” Hall said. “Humans keep warm internally. The human metabolism keeps the body warm and active.

"Snakes, on the other hand, require external heat. Snakes are ectothermic. They need the heat from the sun, off the rocks, air temperature to be up and moving. If snakes are too cold, they get really sluggish and they cannot move.

"When a snake gets that external heat, their metabolism goes up, they break down food, move quicker. If they are slow they cannot strike as fast.”

A close-up of a rattle on a rattlesnake at the Phoenix Zoo on April 15, 2021. When the rattle moves or contracts, the scales of the rattle hit each other and make the distinctive rattle sound.

Common misconceptions about rattlesnakes

Hall and Johnson hope education can dispel common misconceptions about rattlesnakes. They shared these rattlesnake facts: 

  • Rattlesnakes do not lay eggs. Rattlesnakes give birth to live offspring.
  • Babies are born with what is called a button on their tail, a single round dot made of fingernail-like material. They are not born with a rattle. 
  • Baby rattlesnakes are not more dangerous than adult rattlesnakes. “Baby rattlesnakes are afraid of everything,” Johnson said. “When it strikes you it will inject venom but have no control of it." However, young rattlesnakes have a venom gland the size of a sewing pin so they can only inject a nominal amount of venom.
  • People are not food to rattlesnakes. “We are too big to be dinner,” Hall said. “They are not going to try to eat us. We are a waste of venom if they bite us, because now they are low on venom, they have revealed where they are, and we are bigger than they are. So they don’t want to bite us. It’s purely defensive.”
  • Don’t believe everything you see on TV. According to Johnson, many onscreen rattlesnakes have had their venom ducts or glands taken out. Another way a bite can be prevented is if the snake has been cooled down. Cooling a snake down will make it slow.  
  • Although there isn’t evidence that shows snakes can recognize human faces, Hall said snakes do remember routines, and keepers recognize traits of certain rattlesnakes.

Armed with this knowledge, people shouldn't panic if they encounter a rattlesnake. 

“I always tell people, if you are lucky enough to come to the Valley and see one, be happy you saw one but give them its space,” Hall said. “If you are close enough that it is rattling, you need to step back.

"If you take that step back, enjoy the fact that you got to see one in the wild. A lot of people come here from all over the country, they don’t always get to see a rattlesnake and other wildlife.

"I always tell them, ‘Give the snake its space and it will usually move off on its own, you got to see one of our native exotic animals and everyone is safe and happy.'”

You can connect with Arizona Republic culture and outdoors reporter Shanti Lerner through email at shanti.lerner@gannett.com  or you can also follow her on Twitter, @ShantiLerner

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