Some Rattlesnake Facts

Top left, Baja California Rattlesnake. Top right, Baja California Night Snake. Bottom left, California Lyresnake. Bottom right, Red Diamond Rattlesnake.

This time of year many snakes are out, including rattlesnakes. I get a lot of questions about our local rattlesnakes and hear rumors about them, many of which are false, so here are a few facts about these beautiful and important snakes.

In La Ventana/El Sargento, we have three species of rattlers: the Red Diamond Rattlesnake (Crotalus ruber), the Speckled Rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchellii) and the Baja California Rattlesnake (Crotalus enyo). All of these species have rattles and are dangerously venomous and should be given space. As for which are the most venomous, I do not really have an answer. I would treat all rattlesnakes with equal respect.

The rattle-less rattlesnakes that I hear people talking nervously about are only found on Isla Santa Catalina; none of them live on mainland Baja. Occasionally, rattlesnakes will lose their rattles, but this is quite rare.

There are other ways of identifying rattlesnakes besides their rattles. Their heads are quite large and their eyes have vertical pupils, but so do the eyes of many non-venomous snakes. Most rattlesnakes have black and white colored bands on their tails before the rattles, and are quite heavily built, meaning they are relatively short and fat.

One thing I hear often is that baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous than adults because they don’t know how to control their venom. I believe this to be completely false. Even if baby rattlesnakes used all of their venom in one bite, which is very unlikely, they still have much less venom than adults, because their venom glands are smaller. Baby rattlesnakes are definitely dangerous, I just would not say that they are any more dangerous than adults.

One last thing to note: rattlesnakes are venomous, not poisonous. Venom is injected into the bloodstream, whereas poison is eaten or touched.

If there are any questions about our venomous neighbors, I would love to answer them! Please email me anytime. Here are a few pictures of rattlesnakes next to pictures of harmless snakes. Can you tell the difference? Photo credits thanks to Adam Clause, Jackson Shedd, and Stuart Young. California Herps

Snakes on the Road

In the last few weeks, many reptiles have been out. April is probably the snakiest month of the year, as it is mating season. This time of year, snakes will leave their usual range and wander in search of other snakes, and food. Unfortunately, this means snakes are crossing roads much more than usual, which is very dangerous for them. Especially on the main roads, people drive fast, and many snakes move slowly. This spring I have seen more dead snakes than alive, and this truly breaks my heart.

Some snakes, like Coachwhips, move very fast, and can cross roads relatively safely. But others, like our beautiful and endemic Cape Gopher Snakes, and Rosy Boas, are very vulnerable. What I have noticed is that most of the snakes being hit are harmless species. I hope people do not run snakes over on purpose, but I know that they are often misconstrued as evil or dangerous, so I am afraid it is more common than I would like to know.

Accidental hits are unavoidable, but we can definitely reduce the number. If you see a live snake in the road, just stop the car in front of the snake and wait until the snake has crossed the road. This way you don’t even need to get out of your car, and the snake will make it across the road in one piece. If you help a snake in this way, or just see one, please try to take a picture, and I would love to identify it for you! I am starting a project studying which species of snake are found in La Ventana and El Sargento proper, compared to the surrounding desert, and every photo helps!

Reptile Eggs

Happy Easter! This week, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about reptile eggs! Around here, all lizards lay eggs, which might not come as a surprise. Most lizards lay small clutches of eggs in the ground, bury them, and then go about their day. Believe it or not, with one controversial exception, none of our local reptiles watch their young; as soon as they come into the world, they are on their own. 

House Geckos lay only two eggs at a time, but lay many clutches each year. This strategy seems to work well, judging by the large amount of Asian House Geckos living here in La Ventana. 

All the local sea turtles lay eggs as well. They come up on the beach, dig holes, lay their eggs and leave! The challenge with this strategy is that their young are extremely vulnerable when they hatch on the beach.

All of the next type of reptile lay eggs as well. These reptiles will usually build nests in trees and raise their young until old enough to leave the nest. They are the only flying reptiles. However, I don’t need to talk too much about these flying feathered dinosaurs because they have their own column! According to our local expert, “They come in many pretty colors but they all look just the same.”

Yes, some people classify birds as a type of reptile. Sorry, David. All Things Reptile is coming for the Bird’s Eye View!

The last type of reptile does not always lay eggs, and this frequently surprises people. Most of our local snakes do lay eggs, but not all of them. Locally, rattlesnakes give live birth, and so do Rosy Boas and Cape Garter Snakes. Approximately 30% of all snakes worldwide give live birth.

Our Largest Lizards

Here in La Ventana/El Sargento, we have two species of iguana. I have been getting a lot of questions about them recently, so I decided it is time for another column spotlighting our largest lizards.

The first species is the Cape Spiny-Tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura hemilopha), which is a beautiful, arboreal (lives in trees or, in our case, cactuses) iguana that frequently invites itself into people’s yards. Before they know it, they have a new resident living on one of their Cardon cactuses or on their rooftop. The good news is that these Iguanas are always quite respectful; they just want to eat leaves, flowers and insects, and lie in the sun for hours on end.

Cape Spiny-Tailed Iguanas come in a few colors. Large adults will usually be black with a gray collar, but young adults will range from olive green to gray. In my opinion, the babies are the prettiest, pulling off a striking bright green for their first year or so.

The second species of local iguana is highly seasonal, and almost impossible to spot from December to March. Desert Iguanas (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) spend their winters underground, in extensive tunnel systems. These lizards do not climb trees; they prefer life on the ground. They are most often a sandy brown color, although sometimes they will appear much darker depending on the weather. They are a bit smaller than the other local iguana species. If you are here in June, you will see these lizards flash by at regular intervals. I would say they are the most common lizard in our area through the summer months. They are also ridiculously fast and quite skittish, so trying to get a good look at one can be like trying to examine a bolt of lightning. 

Throughout the fall, these iguanas exhibit an interesting behavior: many individuals will disappear, even though it is warm enough for these heat-loving reptiles. The adult iguanas move underground temporarily, which allows the young iguanas a window of opportunity. Since many of the adults are not around, the young ones get to eat more of the flowers, which in turn allows them to grow much bigger then they normally would when competing with adults for food. And being bigger and stronger gives them a much better shot at making it through the winter.

Warm, not very windy, and very sunny: Snakes

The last few days have been warm, not very windy, and very sunny. When you put these three things together, you get snakes!

On Sunday I went on three separate snake-searching expeditions: one in the morning, one in the early afternoon, and one in the late afternoon. I could tell serpents would be out by the amount of lizards scampering about the desert.

In the morning, I found very little in the way of snakes, but some whiptail lizards were darting to and fro, and a few Zebra-Tailed Lizards were relaxing in the sun, waving their tails in the air like irritated cats. I even saw an occasional spiny lizard sitting in the sun, never too far from a hiding place.

On the afternoon trip, even more lizards were out, but I still didn’t see any signs of snakes, so I decided to check on some brush piles in which I had seen coachwhips earlier this winter. The first few piles had ground squirrels lounging on top, a sure sign that no snakes would be present. However, as I approached, one smaller pile started rustling and I had found my first snake of the day!

Finding a coachwhip and catching a coachwhip are Very Different Things. Unlike many large snakes, coachwhips are able to move at amazing speeds, though this one didn’t need any amazing speed because it already had a foolproof hideout. I returned a bit later to see if the snake had re-emerged and, although I could tell that it had, it was like trying to catch a lightning-fast, perfectly camouflaged piece of hay in a needle stack. 

The third outing of the day revealed many snake tracks on the roads, at least for February, but they all seemed a bit old. Judging by the tracks, my guess is that snakes are really out from around 2:30 to 4pm this time of year.

As for which kinds of snakes you may see, most of the tracks were smaller and had the typical curves of fast-moving snakes, so I think they are likely young Baja California Coachwhips and Western Patch-Nosed Snakes, though rattlesnakes are out as well. This is still pretty early for springtime snake movement, so my guess is once this little heat wave goes by, the snakes will retreat back underground until the warmer weather of the first real spring days. Chance Stevens

Breeding season is coming!

We have made it into March! You know the old saying: March comes in like a lamb, and goes out like a lion. Well, as far as reptiles are concerned, it is very accurate! We are on the fringe of the reptile breeding season and, as temperatures warm, the snakes really start coming out. Be careful on the bike trails because, yes, there are rattlesnakes, but I mostly watch out for snakes crossing trails, since many get run over by cyclists.

On Saturday, I came across a large snake track crossing a dirt road and followed it towards a large bush. After checking the bush, I continued in the direction the snake had been moving and, to my surprise and delight, there was a large Baja California Coachwhip sprawled out in some old palm husks. Finding coachwhips is the easy part; catching them, however, is an entirely different matter.

I crept up and the snake recoiled under a husk. As I got closer, it seemed the snake had nowhere to go, so I quickly lifted the husk only to see the tail disappearing into an adjacent bush. I raced around to the other side of the bush trying to spot it. A movement caught my eye from across the clearing. It was the coachwhip! Apparently, it had teleported across the clearing. I watched as it smugly slithered into a brush pile and knew that I had been defeated.

Spring Reptile Walks! Our next walk will start at the Las Palmas Trailhead, north of town. At 9am on Friday, March 15th. We will be heading up the Las Palmas Arroyo in search of San Lucan Rock Lizards. Be ready for a longer walk in search of these beautiful endemics.

Spring Reptile Walks

Announcing: Spring Reptile Walks! The snake season is finally returning, and I am planning on hosting three or four reptile walks this early spring, starting on Sunday, March 3rd. Let’s meet at 9:30am at the Punta Gorda trailhead north of town. It is a bit difficult to schedule dates farther into the future, as we are looking for warm, no-wind days, so I will try to schedule walks about a week in advance.

San Diego Natural History Museum

First of all, this week, I would like to deeply thank Adam Clause, Prof. Brad Hollingsworth, and the San Diego Natural History Museum for all they have done for me. For all of the people driving up or down Baja come spring, I would highly recommend stopping by the San Diego Natural History Museum. They have an amazing Baja exhibit, some beautiful reptiles, and loads more interesting stuff.

Here in LV/ES, the last few days have been very windy and cold, and most of the local reptiles are underground at the moment. I am planning another set of reptile walks in mid to late March, but it is hard to plan ahead when no wind is crucial.

In the meantime, I have been working on a new seasonal pond for our resident toad population. Because of a newly installed berm, their old pond has been closed off, so this summer it will not fill with water. I have a good location for the new pond, but am still in need of some way to keep the water from seeping into the soil. I am seeking clay, if anyone knows where I can find some. If not, the toads will just have to lose their dignity and use my back-up plan, a kiddy pool. Next week I will return for a normal column.

Water Turtle in BCS

Today, I decided to write about turtles, but not the ones you might think. This week I will be spotlighting the only native fresh water turtle in Baja California Sur.

The Baja California Slider (Trachemys nebulosa) is an interesting turtle with a mysterious and rich history. These sliders rarely leave the water, yet they inhabit many isolated oases throughout the desert. So… how did a turtle that doesn’t leave the water spread across deserts? Well, one theory is that Baja used to be much wetter.

Thousands of years ago, this peninsula was much more like the mainland adjacent to Baja, with a good bit more rainfall. The turtles could have traveled from oasis to oasis until they arrived at their current range, or they could have stayed here unchanged since the peninsula broke off from Mainland Mexico, or somehow crossed the ocean. Another possibility is that they just evolved in Baja, although this theory is probably not the answer because a very similar — if not identical — population of turtles lives in Sinaloa and Sonora on the mainland.

These are all good theories, and it is unknown how these turtles got to Baja in the first place, but we do understand how they got into all of the isolated oases. In the 1700s, natives brought these turtles northward, from their tiny natural range of the Rio San Jose Valley to all over BCS, as a food source! Now, in the Rio San Jose Valley, these turtles are actually quite rare as a direct result of overhunting.

The Baja California Slider is the only native fresh water turtle in our area, but not necessarily the only fresh water turtle living here because there may be invasive species. For example, unfortunately, Red-Eared Sliders have been released in some water sources, competing with the Baja California Sliders, and diluting the bloodline with interbreeding. These two species are very similar-looking, and it is quite difficult to tell the difference between them. I have not yet had the pleasure of crossing paths with one of these amazing reptiles, and I will follow up with a column about identifying them once I find one, and figure out for myself what the differences are.

Sea Snakes & Eels

One of the most common snake sightings that I hear about goes something like this: “I saw a sea snake on the reef today.” Although this is possible, there is a lot more to it, so let’s get into identifying sea snakes.

First of all, sea snakes are rare around here, and they are not permanent inhabitants of our reefs. They are more appropriately considered guests, and they like to keep moving. I would estimate that 80% of “sea snake” sightings are not snake sightings at all, but rather one of the resident eel species. I have lived here for over two years and have never seen a sea snake myself.

Eels are diverse and interesting fish, and come in a variety of shapes and colors, from Green Morays to Garden Eels. A great resource for identifying eels is resident William Ihne’s video, Eight Eels of Baja.

Complicating matters, some eels are called “snakes” like Tiger Reef Snakes, even though they are actually fish. The only sea snake in this area is the Pelagic Sea Snake, which is a striking yellow-bellied black-backed snake known for its fascinating lifestyle of living out at sea. Sea snakes are dangerously venomous and should be given space, though they are quite docile and unlikely to bite. 

One telltale sign of a sea snake is the tail (no pun intended). The black and the yellow of the body overlap into a mottled sort of look, and the tail is flattened to aid in swimming. As far as I know, there aren’t any eels with a similar pattern of black and yellow on the tail. 

Another way to tell the difference between a sea snake and an eel is by the head. An eel’s head is usually a bit smaller than its neck, and the back of its head is less well-defined. Eels are also quite happy to open their mouths in warning.

Although rare, one time when sea snakes may be observed is when they wash up on the beach. They are very sluggish on land, but still should be given space, even when they look dead.

Hopefully William’s great video and this column can help you tell fish from reptile!