Cochise County: First Rattlesnake ID Sighting of the Year, a Western Diamondback

Not a Mojave green rattlesnake? A Western Diamondback? Really? On or near our southern Cochise County, Arizona, property, my first rattlesnake sighting of the year provided easy ID and a bit of a surprise. Nothing earth shaking, but in recent years, it seemed like the Mojave rattlers had taken over and put the local Western Diamondback reptiles out of business. The last Western we’d seen had been in 2010–out back of our water storage tank area, sneaking up from behind, headed directly toward my wife’s unprotected ankle. Every other pit viper spotted by us between here and Highway 92 to the north and the San Pedro River to the west…has been a Mojave green.

Okay, so I’m getting a wee bit weird. Why should I get all excited about spotting a locally less common snake? Any one of them can be Slithering Death, right?

Right. But somehow, don’t ask me how, my attitude toward rattlesnakes has shifted considerably in the last eight years. Used to be, I had my share of anti-rattler attitude and then some. Now, as long as they’re not close enough to the Border Fort to present a clear and present danger, I actually enjoy seeing them. And this one, about half a mile from the house, spotted on Paloma Trail, was interesting.

For one thing, this is the first time ever that I’ve been able to get any photos of a Western Diamondback. Check out the Critter Index on this site and you’ll find at least half a dozen posts chronicling our encounters with Mojave greens, but Westerns? Nada. Zilch. Zip.

So: Opportunity! I can now, finally, post pictures showing readers exactly what the differences in “tail patterns” are between the two species, which is by far the easiest (and safest) way to identify the snake in the field.

This is important, why? Simply put, these two highly beasties, though highly similar in appearance, possess different venom types. Anyone who has to deal with a rattlesnake bite (God forbid) needs to know which rattler did the fang work. Different venom type means different antivenin type; if the Emergency Room folks don’t have to start treating a victim by-guess-and-by-gosh, that’s good thing. (Western Diamondback venom destroys muscle tissue. Mojave green venom shuts down respiration.)

On the tail of  the Western Diamondback rattlesnake, the white and black "coontail" bands are roughly equal in width, as shown here.

On the tail of the Western Diamondback rattlesnake, the white and black “coontail” bands are roughly equal in width, as shown here.

On the Mojave green rattlesnake's tail, the white bands are much wider than the narrow black bands.

On the Mojave green rattlesnake’s tail, the white bands are much wider than the narrow black bands.

There was one other thing that was really noticeable about today’s Western Diamondback sighting: The rattler was much warier of me than most of the Mojave greens sighted over the years have been. Several times, Mojaves have simply rested out in the middle of the road and allowed me and my camera to approach to within fifteen feet or so…without moving at all. They’d just laze around, soaking up the sun, keeping an eye peeled my way but otherwise taking no notice whatsoever of the lurking human. Not so the rattler in the road today. Like many another, it was chilling, soaking up the rays, when I first stopped the truck. But after I got out to take pictures, Jake the Snake decided within seconds that it was time to move on, get outa Dodge, find some cover.

This Western Diamondback seemed warier of humans than most of the Mojave green rattlesnakes we've sighted over the years.  Here, it's heading for the brush at the side of the road.

This Western Diamondback seemed warier of humans than most of the Mojave green rattlesnakes we’ve sighted over the years. Here, it’s heading for the brush at the side of the road.

This shot came out a bit blurry but does provide a good view of the distinctive spade-shaped head of the pit viper.

This shot came out a bit blurry but does provide a good view of the distinctive spade-shaped head of the pit viper.

Home Sweet Home, heading into deep cover under brush at the side of the road.

Home Sweet Home, heading into deep cover under brush at the side of the road.

6 thoughts on “Cochise County: First Rattlesnake ID Sighting of the Year, a Western Diamondback

  1. I will show this to Katy, so she can see the difference. She probably won’t need it here, but she does go hiking in the mountains with friends. I have taught her to watch for them and avoid them, but even careful people have had problems.

  2. Definitely; mountain hiking can always trip a person up. So far (in my 72 years to date) I’ve never had a problem with rattlers when I was on clear and open trail per se, but have had close encounters that included (a) hearing one in tall grass where seeing one’s feet was impossible, (b) ditto for one horseback ride along an overgrown highway shoulder–horse reared and nearly came down in front of traffic, (c) reaching down to pull staples from an old fence line post lying on the ground, and having a surprised snake buzz at me from beneath the post, and (d) stepping up on a sizeable boulder and having to stop in midstride because there was a rattler on the other side.

  3. My only one was when I was 12 and went to sit on a boulder. My dad saw it and yelled at me to look around boulders before trying to sit on one. I learned because there was one under it.

  4. That would drive the lesson home, all right. My first “remembered” encounter came a good deal younger than twelve. I recall being 5 years of age, Dad not home to deal with the snake, when a prairie rattler started moseying across in front of the house. As it happened, Mom and my younger sister (the other sister wasn’t born yet) were in the house, but I was a bit farther out, doing whatever 5 year old boys do. Mom probably warned me (memory fuzzy there), but at any rate I know I climbed up on the hood of this old Mercury station wagon we had at the time and had to wait until the snake had finished its journey.

    Which took about eight or nine eternities, viewed through the impatient lens of my immature perspective.

  5. I don’t like snakes at all, but I found it interesting that the Mohave and Western’s venom debilitate completely different areas of the body. Best to just stay away…

    Ghost, had the rattler in these photos just eaten? It looks a bit thick through the middle.

  6. Sha, I didn’t get a chance to ask snake how long it had been since chow time. However, I do agree with you; this rattler is even heavier through the body than most of its kind–rattlesnakes being heavy bodied to begin with, but still. Also, note the rather sharply triangular, pointed shape to the rattles, which indicate to me that this fellow has been growing very fast between skin changes (adding one rattle per change). That’s an unusual fast-growth pattern, more so than any other set of rattles I’ve ever seen. Most likely, this critter has been eating a LOT, to do that. Which of course explains the “thick in the middle” appearance, so the answer to your question is…probably yes.

    About the different venom types: There is one subspecies of Mojave, mostly found farther west in Arizona than Cochise County, that packs BOTH venom types and is therefore even more deadly than our locals. Also, we’ve seen pretty clear (although circumstantial) evidence around here of cross breeding between Mojaves, with the Mojave traits predominating in the offspring, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find out that some of those dual heritage vipers also produced dual venom types.

    Obviously, your “just stay away” rule is a good one in any case.

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