What Kind Of Snake Is That?

Don’t stop to ask, run
BY: CINDY RAY

Los Cabos is excellent for hiking and exploring the desert fauna and mountainous views and is full of surprises; blooming cacti; sprawling fig trees; and amazing waterfalls where fresh rain from the mountains behind us flows down to the arroyos.  There are also 18 species of venomous snakes quite at home in the desert, and two documented venomous water snakes, so being an informed adventurer is crucial to your safety.  Watch where you are stepping and grabbing.  Most ranchers wear leather chaps or leggings and leather boots in brush and desert areas.  April is the month the snakes start moving around in the Cape area in particular and they are prevalent throughout the summer. Yikes! They’re here now!

There are at least nine varieties of harmless snakes throughout Baja Mexico, so don’t be beating these over the head with a rock.  These include: rosy boas; bullsnakes; gopher snakes; leaf nosed snakes;  gartersnakes;  kingsnakes;  coachwhips; baja ratsnakes; and baja sand snakes.  All snakes, the good, the bad, and the ugly, (aren’t they all ugly?) are helpful in curbing the population of rodents which also live in the region. Unfortunately most snakes found in the Southern Baja region are venomous and need to be avoided at all cost. 

Most of the toxic snakes in Baja are vipers because of the heat sensing pit organ between the eye and the nostril on either side of the head.  This tends to give the head a triangular shape.  The organs help the snake locate their prey as they are mostly blind. And most are nocturnal, but the water vipers hunt during the day,  so you’re never safe. The nocturnal snakes tend to have slanted eyes with slits for pupils while the diurnal snakes have rounded eyes with larger pupils. Their version of night vision goggles.  

There are two documented water snakes that are poisonous: the cottonmouth (also known as water moccasin); and the yellow bellied sea snake.   The cottonmouth ranges from black to green and has a white stripe along the side of its head.  When threatened it unhinges its mouth to display a wide white (cotton like) colored mouth.  It is reported to hiss as a warning; and is also more likely to stand its ground rather than flee.  In addition this snake is semi-aquatic which allows it to travel in water and on land which is rare.  It prefers swamps; however, has been documented in Baja.  The second of the water snakes is the yellow bellied sea snake so named for the yellow underside.  The top portion is usually black or dark brown to camouflage itself in the ocean waters where it lies in wait for prey. It out numbers all other species of snake in the world, and it is one of the most toxic as well.  It is very non aggressive to humans; and not of the viper category. It can appear to be a stick;  which is how it deceives its next meal.    Divers have documented bumping up into them with no issue except perhaps a near heart attack. 

 

The rest of the 16 species of venomous snakes are rattlesnakes.  They can be found in Baja California and many of the offshore islands. Some are speckled;  San Lucan speckled; southwestern speckled; western; southern pacific; red diamond (all rattlesnakes).  Most of us are familiar with the fact that the name rattlesnake refers to the tail which has round “buttons” which make a distinctive rattling sound in warning.  The exception to this trait is the Isla Catalina Rattlesnake, a sneaky bastard which is a rattle-less rattlesnake.  (Oxymoron of a snake I guess.)  Thankfully the Isla Catalina viper is only found on the Isla Catalina off the shore of Loreto.

The most prevalent in the Cape region is the Baja California variety which has a slightly smaller head and has scaly mounds over the eyes.  The largest and therefore the most deadly is the Western diamondback (referring to the diamond pattern on its back). This species is mainly found in the canyons and in the northern Sierras. Most of the species are light or dark gray with darker speckles or diamonds on the body.  The red diamondback is very common in the desert areas of the Cape areas displaying a maroon diamond along it’s back.

Though usually not in beach areas, rattlesnakes have been spotted in sand dune areas. 

The snakes or reptiles in general are regulated by environmental temperatures.  Since they are cold blooded, (they cannot regulate their temperature, so their body temperature is regulated by their environment),  they tend to hide when they encounter extreme temperatures.  Being a slave to the climate, they need to move around at all times of the day or night and need water.  So be mindful when hiking near fresh water supplies in the bluffs or arroyos.

 Rattlesnakes are more concerned with their survival than sending you down the mountain in a panic, or worse in a basket. They are not aggressive unless cornered or surprised, and sense you through temperature and vibrations. They will coil themselves when threatened.  If the warning rattle will not scare off predators, they can leap as far as two thirds their length from the coiled position to strike. 

The number of “rattle buttons” on the tail should roughly indicate the age of the specimen.  The length and breadth is also a good indicator. The little baby snakes, (don’t expect cute, here,) are harder to spot and have no warning buttons yet.  They are also more deadly than the adult vipers because their venom is as lethal and have no control over the amount they spit out The mature snakes often only bite without ejecting venom, just a warning to scare off predators.  They usually save the venom for hunting.  However; if you or someone is bitten be sure to get to a doctor as soon as possible.

Elementary protocol for a snake bite according to Dr. Spencer Greene, Director of Medical Toxicology and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, the following is a checklist:

 

Do

Stay calm.

Call for medical help immediately. 

Take off anything constricting the area, such as a ring or watch.

Position the affected area at or above heart level.  If bitten on the hand; bring it to heart level; and if bitten on the leg or foot elevate it if possible.

Go to the emergency room- the sooner the better.

 

Don’t

Apply a tourniquet or constriction band.

Apply ice; it can cause local tissue damage.

Apply heat.

Cut the affected area and attempt to suck the venom out. Maybe your companion will do this. Maybe not. Don’t expect it.

Use commercially-available extraction device.

Use electrical therapy.

Apply any type of lotion or ointments.

 

Staying calm is probably one of the most important items.  I had a cousin, (a 10 year old boy), who was picking through a firewood pile and bitten by a rattlesnake.   He ran all the way home and unfortunately had pumped it through to his heart and he could not be saved.  The less exertion the better.  Another important item is to either take a photo of the snake if possible or try to write a description down for the emergency medical team.

 So with the woodpile in mind something to note is to keep any piles of metal lumber or debris up from the ground level in the yard.  If you offer snakes water and shelter; they can make themselves at home, so you may want to bring any pet water and food inside at night as well; remember rattlesnakes are mainly nocturnal.  The other important item is to get rid of mice or rats; these are what snakes primarily eat. You don’t have to be a big fan of cats to prefer them to snakes, so get one.

So a short recap of snake awareness:  Be mindful of where you are hiking or where you are putting your hands.  Make sure you can see under around or over rocks and bushes before stepping or touching them.  Wear protective clothing if possible while hiking through the desert rocks and brush and be mindful of sounds (such as a warning rattle or hiss).  Watch out for snakes around fresh water supplies and anything swimming in the water.  At home make certain not to create an inviting environment for snakes. Remember most snakes will avoid confrontation with you, but you can’t count on it. Keep your eyes open and be aware.