Snake Stories: The Mojave Green Rattlesnake

Snake Encounters In Snake Country

What on Earth is a Mojave green rattlesnake? Until this morning (September 2, 2009), I’d never even heard the term. The diamondback rattler and I have been on unfriendly terms for most of my sixty-five years. At least the reptiles must consider the terms unfriendly: When I see one of the pit vipers anywhere within a five mile radius of our desert home, the snake dies.

Not that I have anything against the critter that tempted Eve and ran a strong campaign to be elected as our national critter-emblem during Revolutionary times. They fill a strong niche in the ecology, they’re not generally aggressive toward humans, and they even give birth to live babies after the snakelets hatch from the eggs inside Mommy. What’s not to love?

Um…Fear Rules. In the case of the rattler it does, anyway. Quite frankly, I don’t want to get bit…and more than anything, I don’t want my wife, Pam, to get bit. She’s five feet tall, ninety-five pounds of slim, gymnastically built redhead…and she has COPD. Yup. Emphysema with chronic bronchitis. Bad breathing and not enough of that.

And now I find out that the Mojave green rattlesnake has a dual action venom that doesn’t start destroying tissue like diamondback rattler venom does. It’s worse. The Mojave green’s venom goes after the blood and the nerves both and shuts down the respiratory system. That snake wouldn’t even have to bite Pam; one good hiss at close range could send her to her grave!

Up close and personal.

Up close and personal.

It Ain’t Friendly Being Green

The first thing to remember about the Mojave green rattlesnake is that it’s not necessarily the slightest bit green, although it can be. The second thing to remember is that this most deadly of all North American reptiles does not live just in the Mojave Desert. True, it is reported to like relatively flat desert country better than anything else, but we have that here in the Sonoran Desert of southeastern Arizona, too. And just as we have the desert, we have the Mojave green.

How do I know this? It started yesterday in the late afternoon as I was heading out in our Subaru Outback to snag some gasoline from the station five miles upvalley from our relatively remote home acreage. We hadn’t seen a single snake of any sort on our four acres since moving here in April, although a couple of weeks ago I did spot a jet black Slytherin on the dirt street just a few hundred yards out. No venomous rattlesnake is jet black, we don’t have cottonmouths in country this dry, and the king cobra and its cousins are thankfully far, far away (though some idiot in Montana was keeping several of the latter and milking their venom a few years ago). Knowing that, I steered wide of the four foot black crawly and simply waved to it as I went by.

Yesterday was different. At pretty much the same spot on the dirt street, just about three hundred yards from our property line, what I thought might be a diamondback rattlesnake was lying there, calmly sunning itself. I’d already gone past without being sure but stopped and backed up the car to get a better look. Yup. Rattlesnake anyway, about three feet. A few whoop-to-do vehicular maneuvers later and it was a terminated rattlesnake. A neighbor had ridden past on his bicycle as I was doing that…but hadn’t seen the snake. His best guess was that I was trying to flatten the rut ridges from the last rains!

He stopped long enough to take a look at the remains of the reptile–which I left “as is”; scavengers would get a meal sooner or later.

Half a mile farther on…repeat the process. That one was smaller, about two and a half feet, and definitely a diamondback. Both carcasses were still there when I returned from the gas station half an hour later; both were long gone when I headed to town this morning. Somebody ate well.

However, on the way out this morning, I met a neighbor’s son-in-law for the first time. He’d been bowhunting for mule deer a bit farther back in, and he knew about the Mojave green. In fact, he’d seen one a day or two earlier, and he knows his rattlesnakes well enough that there seemed little doubt his identification of the species was accurate.

Which got me to thinking: The one I’d killed so close to our property hadn’t been a diamondback after all. For one thing, the “diamond” pattern didn’t stand out all that well, and it looked more triangular than diamond shaped. The snake had also been fairly heavy bodied for its length. A Mojave green. When I got home this evening and mentioned the Mojave green to Pam, she just nodded. Turns out she knew all about them already, having lived in Cochise County for many years in the past (which I had not). Additionally, there had also been a bit on the local news today about that very venomous viper.

Well…she hadn’t known all about them. She hadn’t known their venom was qualitatively different from that of the diamondback, a whole bunch of times deadlier than the sidewinder, a Death Arrow pointed straight toward her own personal struggle to draw air into her already seriously challenged lungs.

If you happen to know an editor at the Rattler Tattler, that tabloid read so assiduously by reptiles everywhere, feel free to pass the word: Anti-Rattlesnake Racism is alive and well in our area. You would do well to take your mouse hunting excursions elswehere.

If you are a Mojave green, you would be very wise to do so.

Just at dusk today, I took a couple of buckets of scrap lumber over to our temporary storage pit. Sometimes, as I’m homebuilding, the little bits of leftover wood get to be unsightly. If we don’t need them by the end of the project, they’ll just get buried and “go back to the land”.

I don’t like going to the pit that late. Snake country. Covered the path with no problem, though. Dumped the white bucket, sat it down by some bunch grass, and dumped the green bucket.
Update: October 18, 2009

...and dumped the green bucket.

…and dumped the green bucket.

Just as I started to turn after emptying that second pail, my left side peripheral vision caught a flash of motion. There was sound, now that I think back, but not much. By the time I could focus, I was staring down at a good sized Mojave green rattlesnake…in the pit! What’s “good sized”? I’d say about four feet.

Best guess is that the snake had been spooked when I placed that first bucket too near the bunch grass. It was not being aggressive at all, just trying to get out of Dodge, or at least I don’t think it was coming after me. Mojave greens have a reputation for ferocity and aggression, but it didn’t rattle either before, during, or after its Flight 101.

And flight it had been. It’s not like it crawled out over the edge a bit and then slipped; it sailed through the air and dropped a good nine feet or so, landing on a big, stray piece of cardboard that happened to be in the right place to act as a cushion.

At least “sailed” is the best term I can manage. Its landing point was a good eighteen inches out from the edge of the pit wall.

Was it thrown out there by a spiritual Master who happened to be acting as my guardian angel? It’s Flight Time angle of travel was more toward me than otherwise, now that I think about it.

Of considerable interest is the fact that Pam and I had both “sensed” the critter’s existence just about three weeks ago, each of us having gone to the pit at different times but on the same day and both of us certain what our sixth senses were saying. Matter of fact, it’s equally interesting that I had no awareness of the beastie whatsoever tonight…until it was literally airborne.

I watched the down-pit critter lying there, likely a touch stunned from the event it had just experienced, squiggled in close S-curves to itself but not coiling defensively and not rattling, just sort of seeming to think, “What the $&@!*!! just happened ?!?!”

Then I headed back to the camp trailer to fetch my .410 shotgun, ’cause them’s the rules. By the time I returned, it was gone from sight. That didn’t bother me too much, in large part because I don’t believe it can climb the walls to get out of the pit. Our desert grassland whiptail lizards can and sometimes do run up and down those walls like they’re on level ground, but rattlers don’t have long, sharp claws on their scales…and the Mojave green is a fairly heavy bodied snake to boot.

Dang. The more I ponder, the more convinced I become that it was silently attacking and that a spiritual presence saved my life on the spot.

How did it disappear so easily? Best guess is that it slithered under the very cardboard piece that cushioned its fall. Am I going down there after it? Do I look like a crocodile hunter trying to get nailed by a stingray to you? Not a chance, Vance! Will it eventually starve to death? No. Snakes are feast-or-famine sorts of animals. They can go a long time between meals. And a rodent–mouse, rat, or mole–falls in there every now and then, not to mention a stray frog and possibly even one of our beloved whiptail lizards if she (whiptails are all female) gets too cocky. So, when all is said and done, the snake gets a free buffet and an easy life.

But it surely does put a new meaning to the term “pit viper”.

Update: October 18, 2009: Scientific Observation

I was returning from a brief stroll around the property this morning when I suddenly stopped in my tracks. Some distance down the curving path that winds between scattered bushes and clumps of bunch grass, a stretched-out, slowly traveling snake was extremely visible. I’d come past that point just a few minutes earlier and could well have been quite close to the critter, but then is then and now is now. It wasn’t alarmed, wasn’t looking for a fight or anything, and had simply turned its head back to see what sort of being might be approaching from the rear.

Since the reptile was directly between me and the camp trailer, continuing on my existing flight path would have been suicidal. So, choosing the obvious course of action, I looped wide to the left in a big semicircle (watching very closely that I didn’t step on another snake in the process), calling out our standard, “Coming in!” before opening the door. Pam’s usual seat is right next to that door, and no one wants to be startled by a rather noisy door suddenly snapping open at close proximity.

“Heads up!” I told her as I grabbed the single shot .410 shotgun inherited from my late father. Since the snake-in-the-pit incident, that firearm has been kept handy, just inside the door.

“Another one? Where?” She asked.

“Close in.” I was already moving out, reversing the semicircle route to arrive back at the point from which I’d first seen the rattler. And rattler it was, an instantly recognizable–what else?–Mojave green. Now armed, I was in “hunt mode”…but where had the snake gone? Not that I’d expected it to just wait there patiently while I got something with which to kill it and returned, but it was going to be an uncomfortable time in the campsite if it couldn’t be located. Scan, step, stop, scan. Scan, step, stop, scan, extend inner senses. Scan…and there it was! It had moved about 20 feet on down the trail, getting ever closer to the trailer, but was now turned around, lying next to a clump of bunch grass, head calmly raised to see what I wanted.

So I killed it. For those readers who get upset about such things, perhaps I should mention that I understand. To me, Soul is Soul, and whether it occupies the body of a venomous reptile, a kangaroo rat, or a human…makes no difference. The only difference is that a Mojave green rattlesnake can kill you in half a heartbeat…and I have the responsibility as head of household to keep our people safe. Including, of course, me. Does it affect me emotionally? Yup. Will I do it again…and again…and again? Yup. I long ago chose the role of family leader, chose to live in this particular place as the best choice for all of us, and that’s part of the price to be paid.

Now: You may already know that simply removing a snake’s head does not result in a swiftly motionless body. In this case, a single blast of birdshot from a range of about 20 feet had done just that. The head was instantly gone. That’s good on two counts: (1) Death was lightning fast, extremely limited suffering for the departed Soul. (2) No human was going to get bitten by this particular viper. However, the headless body was still actively writhing, curling back and forth, hanging onto life with a tenacity the likes of which ought to make any human more than proud. I studied this at length. And I learned a couple of things:

1. Touching even a headless body will result in a strike by the Mojave green! Say what? I took my trusty #2 shovel and pressed down–not hard, but thinking that I might try eventually shoving down the blade to sever the rattles from the tail–and the headless head end instantly curled back to strike the shovel! Dang! What this tells me is, no, you can’t afford to let this beastie be seen near your disabled wife’s abode without doing everything possible to remove the threat. These snakes are extremely well camouflaged for this land. Touch one by accident, even lightly, and you’re gonna get bit. Not the snake’s fault or anything; that extreme reflex no doubt saves their lives countless times in the wild. Just a fact of life…or death. Clearly, they don’t have to think about it–obviously hard to do when you have no head–it’s just the way their bodies are wired. Scientific Observation number one.

2. The Mojave green’s body knows it’s okay to let go if it’s upside down! It was bothering me, watching the snake’s writhing form. It’s not that I haven’t been there before, but still. Then for whatever reason, something flashed into my awareness: What if that body, that genetic form, was built with other triggers than just striking at obvious threats even with the head gone? Specifically, what if being on its back with that glistening white underside staring at the sun–what if that meant, “Okay, you’re dead now; it’s okay to let go?”

And it worked. Using the shovel, I flipped the snake body over…and within moments, its struggles had ceased. It was entirely motionless. It was, I choose to believe, at peace.

Out of respect to the departed Soul, the photo taken of the upside down body will not be shown here. Since that picture was the one with the tape measure in it, the length of the beastie can’t be shown, either, but the total length (allowing for an inch of shot-off head) came to just an inch under three feet. There were “ten rattles plus the button”. Not a Jurassic monster, but big enough to carry a fair enough boatload of death. Not the one that jumped into the pit, by the way: That rattler is about a foot longer and noticeably darker in coloration.

A photo sequence of the right-side-up body is being included here. It seemed important to let new-to-rattler readers understand how much movement a supposed-to-be-dead pit viper can generate. Why? The deadhead bite, that’s why. A friend who used to work in Emergency Medical Services told me a (true) story today of a man who called 911 after being bitten by a rattler. When the ambulance arrived, the guy had killed the snake that had bitten him and had cut off its head, putting the head into a box just in case hospital staff needed to determine exactly what kind of snake it was.

When they wheeled him out of the ambulance on a gurney, the box was also on the gurney–and fell off, the lid fell off, and the snake head wound up under the ambulance. Yup. One of the attendants decided he’d just reach under and get that head…and yes indeed, it bit him. Moral of the story: If there’s any doubt that a snake is really dead, it’s best to err on the side of lots and lots of caution.

Sleep well tonight.

Photo sequence starting point: Mojave green with no head.

Photo sequence starting point: Mojave green with no head.

About five seconds after the above photo.

About five seconds after the above photo.

 Another five seconds....

Another five seconds….

Almost a pause in the movement, but not quite.

Almost a pause in the movement, but not quite.

 New writhing "pose".

New writhing “pose”.



UPDATE: January 6, 2013

A recent comment by a reader prompted this update. Jayzandra doesn’t believe the snake in these photos is a Mojave green rattlesnake because it lacks the usually clear black-and-white “coontail” pattern seen in most members of the species. My wife and I, based on our experience with these rattlers here at the Border Fort for the past several years, have no doubt this one was a Mojave, all right…it just didn’t have as much western diamondback DNA in the mix.

The Mojave, we’re convinced, will take over the territory of other rattlers, often interbreeding to produce different mixes. When we got here in ’09, we saw western diamondbacks, prairie rattlers, and Mojave greens, all three. But for the past two years, nothing but Mojaves have made their presence known. Based on both appearance and known history of this snake’s distribution–starting near Barstow, California, less than a century ago and spreading from there–it seems likely this beast is a mix.

First, “whatever” critters (possibly cobras or another species with similar venom, many of which were lost when a truckload of them got loose after the truck was wrecked) began mating with western diamondbacks. Next thing you know, here comes the Mojave green. But they didn’t stop there: This snake (in the above photos) does have a wide/narrow band pattern near the tail, all right–only one band, and hardly black/white, but it’s there.

So maybe it’s only half Mojave green, but we’re willing to bet it’s still packing the cobra-style venom.

Now, having said all that, here’s a photo of a more recently encountered Mojave green tail which does present the classic “coontail” appearance. I wrote a Hub about this one on How to ID the Mojave Green Rattlesnake but neglected to update this page.

This snake (below) was terminated just a few feet from the northwest corner of our dwelling on October 1, 2012. As you can see, the white bands are (as Jayzandra mentions) much wider than the black bands.

In my case, I personally know whether or not a newly encountered rattler is a Mojave green before I even look at the tail. The recognition is instant and, I strongly suspect, involves some sort of ancient (perhaps psychic) surivival system hardwired into our ancestors. But I may be a throwback; for you, “checking the tail” could save a life someday–if, for instance, you or a loved one are booking to the hospital with a snake bite but without the snake to show the doctors.

This "coontail pattern", with wide white bands and narrow black bands, reliably identifies it as a Mojave green rattlesnake. The western diamondback has a similar pattern but with bands of equal width.

This “coontail pattern”, with wide white bands and narrow black bands, reliably identifies it as a Mojave green rattlesnake. The western diamondback has a similar pattern but with bands of equal width.

6 thoughts on “Snake Stories: The Mojave Green Rattlesnake

  1. Uh, ” although a couple of weeks ago I did spot a jet black Slytherin on the dirt street just a few hundred yards out. No venomous rattlesnake is jet black,”
    Dear Sir, uh you may want to look up the BLACK Mojave

  2. Thanks, Ryan. That was DEFINIELY a new-to-me and crucial bit of information, and I thank you for providing the heads-up.

  3. Photos look the same as the snake who bit a guy on the hand in West Texas a couple of weeks ago. It appears he shot the snake in his back yard blowing out his guts and then reached down to pick it up getting bit. Took 80 vials of antivenin to save this guy. Hospital bill maybe $200,000 plus air lift. I was raised in WT seeing many rattlesnakes but never heard of or ever saw a green Mojave?

  4. Sid, the antivenin problem sounds about right for the Mojave green. As for not having heard of them in West Texas before, that’s understandable. The most believable tale I’ve heard about the genesis of the species comes from the Barstow, California, area, where a truck carrying hundreds of venomous snakes from all over the world wrecked and spread reptiles all over the landscape. Geneticists may tell us it’s impossible, but the general thought is that cobras or some such (since the Mojave neurotoxin venom is similar to that of a cobra) interbred with native rattlers and the Mojave green was born. I do know that the species does seem to have spread gradually from that Barstow epicenter to take in more territory, and we saw with our own eyes (during our 8 years in Cochise County, prior to moving back to my home state of Montana) that when the Mojaves move in, other rattlers such as the western diamondbacks start disappearing. It was also rather obvious that they’d interbred with the earlier inhabitants, just from the numerous subtle variations in tail patterns, etc.

    About the guy getting bitten by the snake he’d shot: Yeah, we would have seen that one coming a mile away. These rattlers have certain survival reflexes hardwired into their bodies that completely bypass anything in the skull area. I was raised to know that you don’t ever touch a rattlesnake until the head is either totally destroyed (such as by a shotgun blast) or has been completely separated from the body, and you don’t ever touch a head with anything less than a shovel or at least a stick, period. One EMT in our area was bitten by a head that had been chopped off of the snake and carted to the ER with the original bite victim, but the head fell out of the box when they were moving the victim from the ambulance. It rolled under the vehicle, the EMT reached under there to retrieve it, and it bit him. But even more remarkable than that, I once (at the Border Fort in Cochise County) thought maybe I should take the rattles from a snake I’d killed with a .410 shotgun. The head was utterly GONE, destroyed by the blast, but when I pressed down on the tail with a shovel blade, just ahead of the rattles, the headless NECK of the snake whipped back and struck the shovel, SPLAT! The precise moment when a Mojave corpse shifts from “dangerous” to “meat” can be difficult to determine.

  5. Fairly good story. Here is some more info you may want to include in an update. The venom sacks are not just in the head, they can extend as much as 4 inches down the neck & body. Though the chances are slim, this is something to keep in mind, If a headless rattler strikes you & breaks your skin (with a sharp bone, maybe) the venom leaking from the sacks may enter your wound. I’ve not heard of this happening, but it is a possibility. The reason you see fewer other rattlers is due to the Mojave green being a more efficient predator, with less fear of being attacked & as humans occupy a new area the other snakes leave faster than the Mojave green. Having cats on your property can lower the snake population, just due to the fact that they bury their urine & feces in the same terrain snakes crawl over. The smell of felines to a snake is an instinctual notice to move somewhere else. I suggest you dump used cat litter into your wood pit & scatter some all around the property. If you don’t have a pet cat, get some used litter from someone who does. This also helps lower the rodents in the area. BTW- A lot of RVĂ©rs use old cat litter to keep rats & mice out of their RV’s’, it works.

  6. Fairly good comment, A.S. Thanks. I did not know about the venom sacs extending back down along the neck. Had never heard of such a thing and none of the Google Images (that I’ve seen to date, anyway) show that. Plus the neck on a rattler is so slender compared to the spade-flared head that the thought would never have occurred to me. Do you have some reference material you could suggest that shows this? Our readers might benefit from that.

    Can certainly see the benefit of cats and/or used cat letter as deterrent, having watched interactions between cats and rattlers on several occasions. I do have cats in Montana where I am now but the kitties in Arizona (where this was written) were indoors-only. We had a “litter dump area” there, but not near the house. Don’t know what the effective deterrent range might be.

    I have to disagree with your “why one sees only Mojaves after a while” theory, at least in part. They may well be more efficient predators as you say. I wouldn’t know about that. None of the snakes we saw, of any species, ever looked starved. But there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that they crossbreed with diamondbacks and very little doubt that they, not humans, run the other rattlers out. In the desert off grid neighborhood where the Border Fort sits, there are plenty of rodents to eat and very little “crowding” from humans moving in. Outside cats tend to have short lifespans due to predatory owls, so they’re not pushing much. Both on the Arizona property where Pam & I lived for 8 years and the Montana ranch where I grew up, rattlers of various stripes were little bothered by humans. We killed them when we could but didn’t make much of a dent, and they still showed up near–or in the case of the Montana log home, UNDER–the very house in which we lived. This involved prairie rattlers (which we called diamondbacks, and they were, but not westerns with the coontail pattern), an occasional huge eastern (which the “authorities” don’t even admit exist in Montana), and at least one gray viper I encountered with my little red wagon when I was six years old. In Arizona, the western diamondbacks weren’t noticeably concerned about us–in one incident, a western had even flattened itself out and was stalking-slithering silently toward my tiny wife’s exposed heel when her son spotted the snake. Plus, the fifteen or so Mojaves I killed during our stay at the Border Fort included a pretty complete “scale” when it came to identifying marks, some clearly “pure” Mojave and others just as obviously of “mixed race.”

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