Spiritual opportunity? Offered by an ultra-venomous Crotalus scutulatus, the feared Mojave green (or Mohave) rattlesnake? Cochise County must be affecting your brain, Ghost; what are you talking about?
You had to ask. Let’s start with a bit of my personal backstory. I was raised on a western Montana ranch at the foot of Rattler Hill, just over the ridge from Rattler Gulch. We called them diamondbacks, though technically I suppose they were mostly prairie rattlers that populated the place, but in any event, I traumatized myself a good bit over the wee beasties. Killed my first coiled and buzzing pit viper when I was ten years old, firing my Dad’s .45 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, the 1917 model with the half-penny brazed in place as a front sight. It didn’t get less dramatic from there, either, at least internally. During the summers during my childhood years, I used to close my eyes at night and see a sea of snakes, all of them coming to get me. Later, in my early adult years, I often imagined rolling out of bed to step on a rattlesnake’s head, the proverbial monster under the bed.
Add to that the extreme lethality of the Mojave green, and–living among them–I have good reason for, if not paranoia, at least a ration of caution. A CBS.com article by Ryan Jaslow in July of 2012 sums it up this way:
Snake venom expert Dr. Sean Bush, professor of emergency medicine at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, told HealthPop that the Mojave Green snake is known for having the most lethal venom of all North American pit vipers, a class of snakes that includes rattlers.
Bush said when a poisonous Mojave bites, the venom can stay in a person’s system for weeks or months. About 15 percent of people bitten by a poisonous snake may lose a body part like a finger, or experience loss of sensation or function. Others may experience more severe complications like bleeding to death from one bite from the deadly snake.
But I’ve come a long way, baby. Nearing my 71st birthday, I’ve had to terminate quite a few Mojave greens when they showed up too close to the Border Fort for comfort or safety, but I’ve had no joy in the doing of it. I no longer hold to the superstition–which gripped me for decades–that any rattler I encountered and didn’t kill would someday sneak up and bite either me or a loved one.
And yet I’d never succeeded in encountering a rattler that (a) I felt no need to destroy and (b) seemed more than willing to pose for the camera.
That finally happened yesterday.
Pam and I were headed out in the truck, figuring to pick up a few things in town and grab supper at a restaurant before returning. It was around 4:00 p.m., shadows just beginning to lengthen. As we approached the wash on Paloma Trail, I saw the snake, identifying it as a rattlesnake from a good hundred yards out. My wife, whose eyes have not yet ripened their cataracts sufficiently to have them surgically removed, wasn’t at first even sure what I was observing.
I didn’t know what species of rattler it might be. Not yet; we weren’t close enough for that. A hawk or an eagle might have been able to do so, had it cared. But the general shape of any rattlesnake, heavy bodied through the middle rather than lean and straight from head to tapering tail, is unmistakable.
The snake paused, observing our approach. I parked the truck well short of the critter and got out to take pictures.
“Be careful,” Pam warned.
“Of course. But he’s not worried about me.” The reptile might have been a she, of course. I’m no rattlesnake gender expert.
Moving easily to a mutually non-threatening distance, perhaps 20 feet between us, I got ready to go–but a neighbor’s SUV dropped over the rise and down into the wash, somebody coming home for the day. I held up my hand, palm forward in the universal STOP position. The driver ignored it completely, perhaps taking my gesture as a mere greeting. Fortunately, his vehicle and the rattler were pointed the same way and perfectly aligned; the driver side wheels passed to the left, the passenger side wheels passed to the right, the chassis rumbled overhead, and the snake was untouched.
It seemed likely the driver’s maneuver had been deliberate, but no. He stopped to ask what had my interest. When I told him, he made it clear he’d not even seen the snake; I’d distracted him completely.
Aiyeeee! Actions and their unintended consequences, oh my!
The uninterested-in-snakes neighbor went on his way, and I began talking to the Mojave green, brother to brother. By now it was clear that this was the species. Crotalus scutulatus is always our “first suspect” when it comes to rattlesnake sightings around here–they seem to dominate our below-the-wash pit viper population rather completely–but the wider white bands (relative to the black bands) on the “coontail” confirmed it. The band widths are much more even in the Western Diamondback rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, the only other rattler with a known coontail.
Remarkably, this snake wasn’t much worried even after being “overflown” by a rumbling machine monster. He simply back-squiggled a bit of forward progress and held his position, his erect but unshaken rattles remaining silent. I was impressed and spontaneously decided that he needed a name: Harvey Mojave.
Now, I wasn’t thinking much about spiritual unfoldment at the time. Mostly, I was concerned about (a) getting a good set of photos and (b) protecting the road-crawling critter from truck tires. The photos were doing fine. The tire threat, however, was not yet complete. While we sat there, another neighbor nosed over the rise and down into the wash in another SUV. We knew this driver. She stopped readily in response to my outthrust palm and just as readily admired Harvey.
“Oh, he’s a beauty!” She exclaimed. We chatted briefly, both concerned about the snake’s likelihood of having a painful encounter with hard rubber. She felt she had the answer. “I’ll just throw a rock at it!”
She began casting around for a suitable chunk of stone as my wife and I yelled in unison, “Do NOT throw a rock at the snake! Do NOT throw a rock at the snake!”
“Oaky,” she agreed cheerfully, “I won’t throw a rock at the snake.”
Mojave rattlesnakes, “green” or otherwise, have a reputation for aggression toward humans. We’ve never seen even one of them act that way, but getting a rock bounced off your spine might cloud up anyone’s fine, sunny day. We were having a peaceable consultation, no stoning necessary, thank you very much.
Except…we’re not 100% certain that Harvey Mojave didn’t divine the nature of the conversation. It wasn’t long after the to-rock-or-not-to-rock discussion that he decided to move on out of the way, hooking a partial U-turn and heading for the dirt bank that led off down the side of the road.
I kept taking pictures, of course. Duh.
Nearly every major photo op provides a surprise or two when the pictures are enlarged on the computer. This was no exception, starting with the next image. Note two things: The strikingly heavy body (no wonder I could ID it at a distance) and the sharp, rather triangular-in-cross-section “ridgetop” of the snake’s spine–presumably that’s what we’re seeing–as the “belly” sort of flops out below and to the sides. Interesting conformation right there. Also, Harvey carries his tail rattles constantly erect. I’m not sure all rattlers do that, but this one certainly did, possibly to keep dirt from dragging into the forward-opening rattle segments–of which there are just five plus a button, indicating a relatively young reptile.
Luck met preparation as Harvey Mojave picked his angle to exit the dirt road. He was going almost straight away from our truck–crossing in front of our neighbor’s SUV–and the angle down from the GMC’s cab turned out to be most excellent for catching a shot of the top of the rattler’s head. Cropping and enlarging produced a close-up diagram that finally showed me exactly what the experts were talking about. Some rather scientific sounding websites stress the study of a rattlesnake’s head in order to identify its species. They refer to “two large scales” between “the supraoculars”.
Turns out supraoculars are super-large scales that provide a shield above the snake’s unblinking eyes. Both Western Diamondbacks and Mojave greens have scales between the supraoculars, but the Mojaves sport just two large scales in that area while Western Diamondbacks have several smaller scales.
Now we see what they’re talking about.
Identifying a particular rattlesnake may only be a life or death necessity if someone has been bitten, but it certainly is then. The Mojave green packs a neurotoxic venom similar to that of a cobra, several times more toxic than “ordinary” rattlesnake venom–which is nasty enough in and of itself. There is a Mojave with a “Type B” venom that’s “only” about a third as deadly as the more plentiful “Type A” Mojave venom, but unless you live in south central Arizona, you’re probably looking at Type A.
Dealing with a Type A personality in a fellow human being can be tricky enough, but Type A venom? No thanks.
To that end, since staring closely at the head of a live snake (as opposed to studying photos on a computer at one’s leisure) is not a healthful occupation, it’s a good idea to keep in mind the end of the snake you usually can see, i.e. the tail. Mojave greens tend to have wide white coontail bands relative to narrower black bands while the Western diamondback bands are fairly equal in width.
One photo in particular gave up a lot of field ID details. The angle of the light was nothing to brag about, nor could you see those big head scales (not that you’d want to get close enough to do so in any event), but a whole bunch of the keys that tell the practiced eye in a small fraction of a second what’s out there on the trail…those were present and well worth tagging with a bit of text.
When all was said and done, I realized I’d had a number of firsts during the encounter. At nearly 71 years of age, this was the first time I’d ever had a really cool brother to brother conversation with a rattler of any sort. It was certainly the first time I’d named one, though I’m betting “Harvey Mojave” has now become a permanent addition to my vocabulary. It was also the first time I’d ever had the opportunity to photograph a living Mojave green rattlesnake at length with no need or inclination to terminate the creature. And it was definitely the first time I’d ever stopped traffic to help a pit viper cross the road safely.
I’m beginning to think there really is something to this whole spiritual unfoldment thing.