Cochise County Reptiles: The Mojave Green Rattlesnake

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I’ve written about the Mojave green rattlesnake (Crotalus scutulatus) before.  Since arriving in Cochise County in early 2009 and taking up homesteading a mile north of the Mexican border, my wife and I’ve encountered several of this species every year.

Point of order:  The Mojave green is the world’s deadliest rattlesnake, packing a neurotoxic venom not unlike that of a cobra.  In some hybrids, crosses that include western diamondback genetics, a Mojave can carry both types of venom, the flesh-destroying diamondback type and the neurotoxic cobra type. This snake is, in two words, extremely dangerous.

Correction: NOT the world’s deadliest, it turns out. Here is a quote from Greg Lombardo’s highly informative comment on February 7, 2017. (But the Mojave is still plenty deadly.)

Is the Mojave Green the most dangerous rattlesnake in the world? No, that credit goes to the Mexican calibre de cascabel and even worse is the south American Neotropical rattlesnake. They are large, numerous, incredibly dangerous and aggressive snakes.

The occasional reader gets extremely upset at discovering I terminate those we find in close proximity to our dwelling.  Sorry about that.  I do understand.  Really. In fact, I don’t like having to kill them. We do make sure the kills are quick and clean, using birdshot that removes the head entirely in most cases. They literally never know what hit them. Nor do we let the carcasses go to waste. There’s a spot a hundred yards or so from the house where our local Mearns coyote pack patrols nightly. We leave the meat there, and by morning it’s gone.

But leaving the snakes to go their various ways where we might accidentally step on one…that’s not an option for us.  Neither is pulling up stakes and going to live somewhere else.

Therefore, just FYI, if you leave a comment attempting to take me to task for killing a rattler, said comment will simply be deleted.  Without comment.

Also, for those concerned as conservationists, please note that Crotalus scutulatus is officially considered to be a species of “least concern”, meaning that there are a lot of them out there. Which there are. My wife and I also suspect they win out over time, expanding and becoming the dominant species, taking over what had formerly been western diamondback territory.

One reason we know better than to attempt (for example) the “capture and relocate” technique is that it simply doesn’t work.  Not all the time.  Sometimes, they come back.  If they’ve discovered a territory to their liking and that territory includes your house, they’re going to hang around nearby.

As this one did.

Several months ago, Pam spotted a Mojave green crawling along toward the dirt pile positioned a few yards outside my office window.  That one, at that time, I missed entirely.  Wanted some pictures.  It was in super-slow-crawl hunt mode.  Figured I’d have time to click the shutter a couple of times and then blow its head off with my Dad’s old single shot .410 shotgun.

Wrong.

By the time I’d gathered up the weapon, camera, my bathrobe, earmuffs, and a pair of flip-flops (I’d been in bed when Pam notified me of the snake’s presence)…I was too late.  It only took a matter of seconds, but a few too many seconds.

I rounded the corner of the house just in time to watch the last few inches of the critter’s tail disappear down a hole in the dirt.

Gone to eat our little buddies.

See, that dirt pile houses a six-inch PVC pipe that serves as a rabbit hide…and countless small mammal holes that serve as homes for kangaroo rats, spotted ground squirrels, and other little people of that sort.  It had been a sanctuary we’d created for them, and now it had become a Free Buffet for Jake the snake.

Dang.

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Fast forward to tonight, September 20, 2012.  At around 9:00 p.m., on a flashlight inspection tour of our home’s perimeter to check for possible water leakage after just today pressurizing the water line for the first time…I came within a single stride of stepping on ol’ Jake himself.

The rattler–and yes, I recognized it instantly as a Mojave green–was in a resting coil.  My little Eveready rechargeable flashlight had given me warning enough, though barely.

I halted.  The pit viper pulled its head back just that little bit more, cautious but not really alarmed.

The Mojave greens are supposed to be wildly vicious and aggressive.  At least, umpteen online discussions of them will tell you that.  And most likely they are…in anything they consider ugly circumstances.

But the Mojaves we’ve seen in this area have been altogether calm.  Which could be simply because we’re calm, too.  Yes, I eliminate them.  However, I neither hate them nor fear them; there’s simply no negative emotion for their psychic awareness to use as a trigger.

This Mojave green rattlesnake was in a resting coil approximately 5 feet from our home’s south wall at around 9:00 p.m. on September 20, 2012.

From the moment of sighting, I strongly suspected this was the same snake that had been hanging out in our dirt pile.  It looked well fed–on our friends, no doubt–and was a moderately small specimen, as had been the dirt pile dude (or dudette).  In fact, it was simply chilling on the south side of the house instead of traveling the burrows on the north side of the house.

Well, first things first.  I backed up a couple more steps and got the Canon PowerShot out of my hip pocket.  Took a couple of pictures by flashlight (without the photo flash), then headed back around the other way and into the house.  Notified my deep-sleeping wife not to be alarmed when she heard me shoot; I had a Mojave green to terminate.

Back out again, using the big Maglite to light up the grounds a bit better–wouldn’t want to step on Jake’s brother, mother, sister, or other while heading back his way, obviously.

Took a few more pics, then did what I had to do. 

Allowing for an inch of missing head, this particular Mojave green measured roughly 28 inches in length with 8 rattles and a button.  So far, we’ve seen them as small as 7 inches (yet that tiny baby rattler had swallowed an entire mouse) and as big as 4 feet or maybe a bit more.  Didn’t get to measure the big one; it got away.

The white bands on the “coontail”, much wider than the black, mark this as a Mojave green rattlesnake.

The Mojave rattlesnake is not always necessarily green–individuals come in a variety of shades.  Interestingly enough, the same snake looks like several when photographed under different lights.

Well, I guess we all do, come to think of it.

In this snake’s case, pictures taken by Eveready rechargeable flashlight, Maglite, and photo flash were remarkably variable (color wise).

Also, it seems the snake thought it was safely under cover.  It had curled up beneath the overhang of a fallen weed with a few hanging leaves.  It’s unusual for a rattler to feel that safe while still being in reality so exposed.  We did have one go into a resting coil where we could still see it clearly in broad daylight  a couple of years ago, but even that was completely beneath our camp trailer.

A diamondback under a fallen fence post with just a tip of tail-rattle still hanging out–yeah, seen that (when I was 15, and jumped about that many feet in the air, too).  Or, in the case of the 7-inch baby, beneath an overturned oil drain pan…yet again, it was completely covered from the air.

This one?  Guess it’s simply a case of all of us making mistakes, some of them more fatal than others.

The snake clearly thought it was safely under cover.

Unless you run across a Mojave green that’s noticeably green (as this one is only in Maglite light),  it’s almost impossible to tell it from a western diamondback rattlesnake.

Except for one thing.

Both species carry the “coontail” of alternating light and dark bands just ahead of the rattles.  Most writers refer to these as “white and black” (or “black and white”) bands…but they’re not always that black and white, especially in the Mojave green.

However, whether they’re in stark black and white or in more muted shades, one rule is both simple and ironclad:

+++If the bands are more or less equal in width, it’s a western diamondback.

+++If the white (or light) bands are much wider than the black (or dark) bands, it’s a Mojave green.

We showed you that once (above), but let’s do it again.  Knowing this could save your life if you ever get hauled into the ER for snakebite and don’t happen to have the snake with you for identification.

Wide white, narrow black: Mojave green.

Any more, I hardly need to check:  When I see a Mojave green rattler, my identification of the species takes maybe half a millisecond.  Divided by ten.  Instantly, I just know.

But not everybody out there has a state of consciousness as snake-i-fied as mine.  With that in mind, let’s close out this page with a couple of looks at the primary pattern on the main body of the critter.

By Eveready rechargeable flashlight.

By photo flash.

Update: September 2, 2013.

Late this afternoon, my stepson and I were headed around the pickup truck, intending to let him take a look at our newest oversized portable generator. I was in the lead.

“There’s a rattlesnake,” he called out.

By the time I turned and found where he was pointing, the rattler had crawled in under our portable solar generator frame. Only its black and white coontail was visible, clearly either a western diamondback or a Mojave green diamondback.

The white bands I could see were wider than the black bands.

“Mojave green,” I said to Zach. “Keep an eye on him while I get the shotgun and my earphones.”

When I took the snake’s head off with the .410 blast, Zach was impressed. “Wow! What a shot! I know what I need for a snake gun now!”

I smiled. “That’s the advantage of a shotgun, for sure.”

This critter turned out to be about the size of the one featured earlier in this post. A bit larger, but not by much, roughly a two-and-a-half footer. The coyotes will eat well tonight.

However, the coontail was…slightly weird. There were standard Mojave stripes (wider white than black) around part of the tail, but on one side, there were a couple of extra black stripes that made the banding look even in places.

Conclusion? Tentative, but we’re guessing this one was a definite crossbred, part western diamondback and part Mojave green.

If we’re right, that could well mean it was packing both types of venom, as some of the Mojaves are known to do.

This rattlesnake was probably part western diamondback and part Mojave green, based on the unusual banding pattern.

This rattlesnake was probably part western diamondback and part Mojave green, based on the unusual banding pattern.

Update: September 4, 2013.

Until two days ago, we’d not seen a rattler all year long–and now, two in three days, both Mojave greens (which is pretty much the only rattler species we’ve observed in the area since encountering one western diamondback in 2010).

It was again late in the afternoon. I was pushing our empty handcart ahead of me, aiming to set it back in its usual spot between one of the propane enclosures and the Border Fort’s north wall, when the rumbly wheels of the thing scared the dickens out of the rattlesnake. Just ahead of the cart by a few feet, the reptile scooted on over into the weeds bordering the propane shed. When it reached that spot, the body closed up in a tight series of squiggly S-curves for just a second as it tried to decide what to do.

Then, seeing a way between a standing propane tank and the shed, it scooted on out of sight.

Almost, that is. It paused, thinking itself safely under cover, but part of the tail was still sticking out, allowing the Canon PowerShot time to snap the following picture before I headed back around the house to get my earphones and shotgun.

Startled by the wheels of a hand cart, this Mojave green rattlesnake scooted for cover...leaving a bit of tail showing.

Startled by the wheels of a hand cart, this Mojave green rattlesnake scooted for cover…leaving a bit of tail showing.

I had one hope and three possible concerns.

The hope: That the rattler would hang around long enough for me to get some more photos of a live snake before sending it to Coyote Food Heaven.

The possible concerns:

1. We had a four foot gopher snake scoot into that same propane shed earlier in the year, before the monsoon rains produced all the overgrown vegetation. It stayed there for some time, curled up behind a tank in one corner, completely out of sight and laying low. If the pit viper did that, it would have to be persuaded to move politely so I could kill it. I wasn’t looking forward to that possibility.

2. On the other hand, the rattler could decide to move on around the house too quickly for me to find it when I came back out. That would not be good at all. Knowing a Mojave is somewhere really, really close by and yet invisible…that’s not a good feeling, especially for my disabled wife, whose balance is not always the best. She could have a seizure, pass out, and fall on one in the weeds without knowing it until it was too late.

3. There was no time to notify Pam that I was going to be shooting. At the moment, she was over in the laundry shed, a good 100 feet away, on the other side of a very loud generator. Yelling would accomplish nothing.

Oh, well!

I made one mistake. Took my glasses off and left them in the house when I got the earphones and shotgun. That’s fine for shooting, as I only need them for close work. The brass bead on the front of the barrel shows up just fine.

But I hadn’t taken the camera into consideration. The snake was crawling slowly along the house wall when I got back into position, far enough from deep cover that I could risk taking the time to get a few pictures…yet I couldn’t really see the camera view screen very well. In fact, the photography situation was so “iffy” that in one case I took a picture that was all weeds and wall and no snake at all!

Without my reading glasses on, I took one picture that was all weed and wall, no snake at all!

However, for the most part, the snake did show up in the photos. I watched it move cautiously along the wall until it found a super-humongous weed that seemed (in its logical mind) to give it good cover. Thinking things over, it decided to use that, curling up into a comfy resting coil, settling in to take it easy for a while.

The Mojave green rattlesnake crawled along the wall until it found a bit of weed cover it liked....

The Mojave green rattlesnake crawled along the wall until it found a bit of weed cover it liked….

This looked like nice, protective cover.

Liking what it had found, the Mojave doubled back on itself, the start of going into a resting coil.

Liking what it had found, the Mojave doubled back on itself, the start of going into a resting coil.

Step two, still moving into resting coil positon.

...and, completely into the resting coil, one midsized Mojave green rattlesnake at rest.

…and, completely into the resting coil, one midsized Mojave green rattlesnake at rest.

At this point, it seemed pretty clear there was no point in waiting any longer to terminate the snake. At least, going this way, it might well end up on the astral plane going, “WTF! How did I get here? The last thing I remember was being at peace with the world….” But it won’t go the hard way, like all of its own meals went, being stab-poisoned and then swallowed whole. Or like quite a few of its relatives have gone, crushed by a rattler-eating kingsnake and also swallowed whole, headfirst down the tubes. Or any of a hundred other ugly ways to go.

That’s all the rationalization I had to offer.

So I took one step to the right, exposing the Mojave’s head more completely. After the Canon PowerShot snapped one more picture, it went back in its case. The front sight’s brass gleamed brightly in the rays of the setting sun, and I sent one more peaceful Mojave green rattlesnake off to the happy hunting grounds.

...the front sight's brass bead gleamed brightly in the rays of the setting sun, and I sent one more Mojave green rattlesnake off to the happy hunting grounds.

…the front sight’s brass bead gleamed brightly in the rays of the setting sun, and I sent one more Mojave green rattlesnake off to the happy hunting grounds.

Ah, but there’s more. Remember when I said I didn’t have time to notify Pam that I’d be shooting? When the shotgun went off, she was–as it turned out–no longer over in the laundry shed. She’d come back to the house while I was taking snake pictures. When the weapon fired, she was at that moment placing my glasses (which I’d left on the kitchen table) on my office desk.

She was exactly on the other side of the wall I’d just shot.

That is, the birdshot hit about two feet from the wall, where the snake was, but some pellets undoubtedly bounced off the concrete stucco before they quit moving–and all of the sound came that way. It’s a good thing I built this fort with walls some 17 inches thick…and it’s a good thing I’m married to a country redhead who knows how to take things like that in stride.

Even so, though, two Mojaves close to the house in three days is enough to make her nervous about going outside after dark for a while, even with a powerful Maglite flashlight in hand.

12 thoughts on “Cochise County Reptiles: The Mojave Green Rattlesnake

  1. It’s a shame that people would try to guilt you over creating a safe living area rather than risk a deadly encounter. I have lived half my life in Illinois, and half in Arizona. I’ve camped out in both. Arizona is far more dangerous. I encountered a copperhead in Illinois. I’ve met several rattlers in AZ. All God’s creatures fight for their place on the earth. The snakes, the wolves, and us. I credit you with your conscience, and your humane solutions. Your article was great by the way. I never knew rattler species could cross! Thanks for the article. MR

  2. Thanks, Marilynne. I do appreciate the support (for creating a safe living area). It’s an ongoing project when you live off grid; that’s for sure. Example: We have two cats, indoor critters only. Gato, the younger of the two, is an extremely efficient “monster spotter”. This evening, his attention was focused on the floor area running under his litter box, closely focused, too much for too long to be a mere cricket getting his attention.

    “Bet there’s a centipede under there,” I finally realized. Picked up the litter box, and sure enough. Shoe-stomp time. (I don’t dare try to capture-and-release with most centipedes; there are too many places for one to scuttle-and-hide if I take the time to do that.)

    Rattlers can definitely cross. I never knew that, either, or at least had never thought about it. But the Mojaves we see here–and in recent years, they’re ALL at least part Mojave–prove it beyond a doubt.

    Glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂

  3. I encourage King snakes to live nearby. We had one living under a mobile home in Mohave County. My youngest is terrified of snakes and doesn’t even look long enough to identify them, he just takes off. He knew that one though and wasn’t afraid of it. That big ol’ black snake was welcome to live there and keep the nasty, poison snakes away. We didn’t have many bugs in there either. He kept the bug population down, which is amazing in AZ.

  4. Um…encourage, how, exactly? Put out a sign, “King Snakes Welcome”, or what? Oh. Maybe just not hostile when they show up? We’ve not (yet) seen a king snake on this land–saw one black snake about three years ago, crossed the dirt street ahead of us, several hundred yards from the house, but couldn’t be sure of the species. The sighting was too brief. Look like somewhere between 4 & 5 feet in length, but that was about all the ID we got.

    It’s pretty impressive that your snake-phobic son liked the big black fellow. Maybe it can keep the population down on those terrifying four inch garter snakes as well? 🙂

    Wait a sec. “That big ol’ black snake…kept the bug population down…” How did that work (I agree it’s amazing in AZ)? Or…he ate centipedes & scorpions & such? Grasshoppers?

    I do believe this concise comment of yours has generated more questions in my mind than pretty much anything else you’ve mentioned! 🙂

  5. I don’t know if the snake ate the bugs or what, but we sure didn’t have many around. As for encouraging the snake, we threw it a couple mice. Caught in a mouse trap in the house. They weren’t dead yet and we thought we would encourage the snake to stick around. David liking the snake just meant he did not scream and run when he saw it. He would just leave the area and not scare it to death with his screaming.
    I forgot I mentioned the 4-inch garter snake chasing him around the yard. Pretty bad when mom has to kill a snake for the teenage boy (I just scared it away). I also have to kill spiders for my teenage girl, but she will hold a snake and I won’t.

  6. That’s interesting–all of it. Tossing mice to the snake would count as active encouragement, all right.

  7. I killed my first diamondback in 1976. My parents bought a house 7 miles south of Camp Verde on Clear Creek. When the evaporative cooler fell apart, my mom got the idea that she could open the doors at night and let the cool air flow through. I said I didn’t think that was a good idea. She said she wasn’t worried about people out there. I told her I wasn’t either, but was worried about the things with no feet or lots of them. One morning I woke up and there was a path with encyclopedias from the bathroom to the backdoor. The floor was wet in spots. What happened?
    In the middle of the night, Smokey, the outdoor cat came in and started yowling. She NEVER came in the house. Woke my dad up. He got up to investigate and found a 4.5 foot Western Diamondback coiled under the breakfront. I walked past that to the bathroom in my bare feet. That would NOT have been a nice thing to encounter. At any rate, they got the snake outside and wounded in the process. I went out that afternoon and killed it.

    I will kill snakes in places where other people walk, sit or reach without looking.

    A reptile will come out onto pavement about 58 degrees for warmth and into the shade for cooling.

    In 2010 I encountered a small really green Green Mojave on Lansing Street in Pearce

    April of 2014 I was walking wearing a pair of Teva sandals from Sunsites to Cochise for a funeral and saw a dead snake. Black and grey. No diamonds. Tumblers. One end larger than the other. Coontail.

    I will kill all spiders unless I know they are harmless. Scorpions, centipedes, millipedes and other soil dwelling critters are killed. Ants are sprayed. Flies squished. Only in my house. Outside they are left alone.

  8. Laura, your approach sounds pretty sensible to me. Love your watch cat, Smokey. We have two indoors-only cats (around here being outside is sooner or later a death sentence for a cat due to the raptors). The younger feline, Gato, is our premier “monster finder”. We’ve never had a reptile in the house (since we don’t EVER leave the door open during daylight OR dark), but he’s spotted any number of arachnids for me, especially spiders and the occasional centipede.

    I’ve even got a pair of Teva flip-flops but don’t wear them much. Mostly I want a shoe on, for critter stomping if necessary.

    Everything outside is left alone EXCEPT for pit vipers. My wife is disabled, poor balance, poor eyesight on a bad day. She could step on a Mojave and not realize it until too late, so any rattler within 100 feet of the house gets terminated. I don’t like doing it, but I don’t hesitate, either.

  9. I live in sunizona. I have always been told that king snakes and bullsnakes will keep rattlesnakes away. This is not true in our case. There is at least one resident king snake,good size, but I recently came across a rattlesnake in the driveway next to the trailer. I thought it was a western diamondbackbut now im not sure. It may well have been a mohave. We just found another rattlesnake. I think that makes three but because I am terrified of snakes I couldn’t get close enough to kill it. Why do we have so many rattlesnakes around with two kingsnakes and a huge bullsnake nearby?

  10. Casey, I can truly empathize with your situation but don’t have a definitive answer for why the different snake species seem to be thriving in such close proximity. It could be (I’m just guessing here) that the king snakes and bullsnake are simply so well fed that they don’t need to mess with the rattlers. In our neck of the woods (or desert, anyway), this has been a bumper crop year for all sorts of wildlife, and no local predator seems to being hungry.

    My wife, earlier this year, spotted a young cottontail rabbit (just a baby) sitting right behind a Mojave that was in a resting at the time. We know these rattlers do eat bunnies, so why that snake ignoring that rabbit? Maybe it just wasn’t lunch time for the reptile.

  11. I live in Las Vegas, Nevada where we also have the Mojave Green rattlesnake but they are not common here. The predominant rattlesnake here is the speckled rattle snake which are shy, oven do not rattle but do have a rather toxic bite. There coloration varies greatly from one location to another. One must really have to watch where they walk especially in the black rocks where their coloration is very dark and as I mentioned they often do not rattle but will move for cover as their first option.
    I encountered one Majave Rattlesnake south of Las Vegas, stretched out and sunning itself in the cool morning air but on a well-used dirt mining road with large hopper trucks moving back and forth, not a good place for a snake to be. Being a seasoned snake hunter of sorts (collecting) and actually out looking for snakes this was neat! This snake was mature and typical to its species stood its ground. I hooked it then grabbed its buzzing tail and lifted it up and proceeded to carry it well off the road to the safety of a huge rubble pile of rocks. This guy was not a happy camper but settled down bit. I had snake tongs but rather use the hook as it is less stressful on the snake. I placed him down and it quickly did it’s posing thing, took a gaggle of photos and we parted company. Interesting fact, the Las Vegas population are considered to be the most venomous of all Majave green rattlesnakes. Why the venom structure varies from one population to another is still uncertain and it could be simply that the food supply for snakes here is sparse and more potent venom insures the success of the bite. One herpetologist that collected venom from this Vegas valley population was bitten, and despite immediate access to Profab in his laboratory, died several hours later. Is the Majave Green most dangerous rattlesnake in the world? No, that credit goes to the Mexican calibre de cascabel and even worse is the south American Neotropical rattlesnake. They are large, numerous, incredibly dangerous and aggressive snakes. I loved this article and applaud the author for this rare informative blog on the Majave Green

  12. Greg, thanks for the highly informative comment–and the kudos, of course. 😀

    The sparse food supply theory of venom toxicity does sound like it makes sense. I hadn’t thought of that. Another theory (of mine) is that since the Mojave readily interbreeds with at least the Western Diamondback (we’ve seen clear evidence of that as our local Mojaves took over the area and some of the indicators between the two species began “blurring” in various individuals), the blend of venoms comes out different at times. One population over west, toward Yuma if memory serves, is known to possess both the neurotoxic “basic” Mojave venom and the muscle destroying diamondback venom, two for one.

    The southern (Mexican and South American) rattlers you mention would be enough for me to stay north of the border, methinks, even were there no other reason!

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