On a warm October day in 2004, our family was hiking on the Bluff Trail at Montaña de Oro State Park when we heard a sound that to this day makes my wife, Trish, and me cringe.
We were pushing our son, Sean, along in a stroller when the unmistakable and frightening sound of rattlers rang out from the coastal sage in front of us. The thought of our 1-year-old son being bitten by a rattlesnake was horrifying.
Immediately but slowly, we backtracked from the sound without incident.
Last Saturday at nearly the same location, a team of Cal Poly students from the Biological Sciences Department was busy capturing, tagging and implanting small temperature recorders in northern Pacific rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus) — safely. They were specifically targeting males out and about looking for mates. The tags and temperature recorders allow the students to track the snakes’ location and monitor body temperature.
Cal Poly professor Emily Taylor, who directs this team of dedicated students, is the director of Physiological Ecology of Reptiles Lab at the university. She discovered that “males had larger home range sizes than females. However, sex differences in movements were present during the spring mating season but not the summer post-mating season, suggesting that male mate searching causes males to have larger overall home ranges than females.”
She and her students have been tracking northern Pacific rattlesnakes for 11 years and have made some other interesting observations. Typically, these snakes become much less active during the winter months, sometimes hibernating or entering into a twilight state when the cold of winter sets in. However, over the course of their studies, they detected rattlesnakes that come out and bask on warm days during the winter. So as winters keep getting warmer, we could see this happen to a greater extent in the future, increasing the chances of encounters between them and us.
Rattlesnakes are shy creatures and will gladly retreat if given enough room, but their bites can be extremely dangerous and require immediate medical attention. More than 300 people are bitten each year, resulting in about one death per year in our state, according to the California Poison Control Center. Most of the bites occur between the months of April and October.
Most snake bites are accidental and occur on hands, ankles and feet while hiking or climbing. However, Taylor thought that many of these snakebites were “illegitimate,” meaning they occurred when people handled the snakes (so were, in fact, not accidental).
“Maybe accidental in that the person didn’t plan to get bitten, but not in the sense of an illegitimate bite where, say, someone steps on one,” she said.
Just about a quarter of all rattlesnake bites are “dry,” where no venom is injected.
Overall, rattlesnakes are an important part of the ecosystem as they eat rodents and are eaten by other predators. It’s possible to live safely around rattlers by taking precautions. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends:
▪ Never go barefoot or wear sandals when walking through wild areas. Wear hiking boots.
▪ When hiking, stick to well-used trails and wear over-the-ankle boots and loose-fitting long pants. Avoid tall grass, weeds and heavy underbrush where snakes may hide during the day.
▪ Do not step or put your hands where you cannot see and avoid wandering around in the dark. Step on logs and rocks, never over them, and be especially careful when climbing on rocks or gathering firewood.
▪ Check out stumps or logs before sitting down, and shake out sleeping bags before use.
▪ Never hike alone. Always have someone with you who can assist in an emergency.
▪ Teach children to respect snakes and to leave them alone. Children are naturally curious and will pick up snakes.
▪ ▪ ▪
To celebrate Arbor Day, PG&E and the Arbor Day Foundation are hosting a tree giveaway event for San Luis Obispo County residents. Residents must reserve a tree in advance of the event at www.arborday.org/pge or by calling 1-844-887-8715. For those who reserved a tree, 150 drought-resistant trees will be given away by PG&E’s team of vegetation management professionals from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday at PG&E’s Energy Education Center, 6588 Ontario Blvd., San Luis Obispo.
John Lindsey’s column is special to The Tribune. He is PG&E’s Diablo Canyon marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.