Steeves/Trail Mix: Rattlesnakes not keen to bite, but they will

They could kill you, but they'd rather warn you to stay away from them, so heed that telltale rattle.

The Western rattlesnake prefers to save its venom for prey

The Western rattlesnake prefers to save its venom for prey

People are fascinated by creatures that can kill them.

In the Okanagan, that includes cougars, bears, rattlesnakes and black widow spiders, although most of them would much prefer not to.

Rattlers, for instance, would much prefer to use their precious store of venom to kill small mammals. That’s why they have a telltale rattle at the end of their tails: to alert passing humans or bison so they don’t step on them. Imagine a 2,000-pound mammal with sharp hooves walking around a 2.5-pound reptile, eh?

After decades of interpreting the Okanagan landscape and its wild inhabitants for visitors and residents alike at local parks, Scott Alexander knows a thing or two about rattlesnakes, as well as most of the other denizens of the wild that are native to this valley.

And, he admits quite frankly that he’s fascinated by rattlesnakes.

Their ability to sense the heat signatures of prey at night is sophisticated beyond our understanding, he says.

Using a sensory organ located between the eye and the nostril, they use nerve tissue that’s sensitive to infrared heat to detect one one-thousandth of a degree Farenheit difference in heat, in the dark. That allows him to lie in wait at night until prey such as a mouse comes by.

He comments it’s almost supernatural and unfair because the animals they hunt can’t see them, but few creatures in the world have such capabilities to sense the presence of a heat-producing creature in the dark.

Yet, after mating, a female rattler will not eat for as long as a year and a half, the term of the pregnancy, and produce six to eight young.

Normally, they will eat a couple of mice a week, and they are capable of swallowing animals larger than their girth, including young marmots or squirrels. Their venom can kill a mouse in three seconds.

Not surprising that not many other critters will mess around with a rattlesnake.

However, in the unlikely event you are bitten, stay calm because there is anti-venom available at the nearest hospital. And, generally the bite won’t kill you although it is very painful, says Alexander.

The treatment is, however, expensive. Alexander says it costs $60,000 to treat someone bitten by a rattler, with a single vial of anti-venom costing $800.

And, those most often bitten are males between the ages of 12 and 30 and just guess where they were bitten?

Not the foot, which is the most likely place since they are ground creatures, but on the hand and forearms. What does that tell you? Not enough sense to leave them alone; had to pick one up.

While rattlesnakes have no ears, are deaf to airborne sounds and generally have poor eyesight, they are very sensitive to ground vibrations.

They use their tongue to identify what’s in the air around them, by waving it around to gather information.

Some of the same features that you find attractive are what makes the Okanagan Valley rattlesnake habitat: it’s hot and dry. The semi-arid Okanagan’s iconic mariposa lily and meadowlark habitat is also that of the Western rattlesnake.

Unfortunately, the fact that more and more people have moved into that valley bottom habitat has made it less and less available for the rattler.

For one thing, many people have a bias against snakes in general and rattlers in particular. They believe the only good snake is a dead snake, so they’ve slaughtered them for decades, until they are now considered at risk here.

The expansion of the valley’s towns and agriculture has also take over their traditional habitat, and caused more conflicts.

Alexander notes that although only a third of one per cent of this province’s landmass is grasslands, 35 per cent of B.C.’s red and blue-listed species live in grasslands.

If we can keep this loss of habitat to a minimum rattlesnakes will be here for a long time; they’re survivors and worthy of our respect, he says.

However, the most important way of conserving natural habitat is educating people about the critters that live there and why it’s important to protect it, yet park interpretation is one of the areas in which the provincial government has been cutting staff rather than adding them.

Keep that in mind the next time a residential, farm, commercial or industrial application comes up for re-zoning in your area, and suggest instead, that infill should be the first place for such new construction.

If you own land that includes some natural areas, leave them be so you’re providing at least some habitat for wild critters that are being pushed out of this valley.

And, if you care about the loss of education as a tool to conserve habitat, let your local MLAs know that you care and that you’re not the least bit impressed.

Judie Steeves writes about outdoors issues for the Capital News.














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