How are the rattlesnakes doing in the flood?

Lots of you have been asking me how the rattlesnakes are doing with all the high water coming down the American River from Folsom and Nimbus Dams.

Water level on 17 January, looking out at the spot where Female 53 delivered her young a few months ago. Water flow on this day was reported to be 30,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Days earlier, it had been much deeper when flowing at 60,000 cfs!

Well, the telemetered rattlesnakes are all in the oak forest and well above the high water. You may recall that Females 53 and 75 both gave birth to their broods a few months ago out in the flood plain near the usual river channel. And since December, both of their birth sites have been covered periodically by lots of fast-moving water.

The good news is that these females returned to higher ground shortly after their kids completed their neonatal sheds and dispersed from their birth sites in the fall and both have been tucked into their usual winter shelters since cold weather set in. We know that, of course, because of the radio transmitter each carries in her abdomen.

The fate of their babies, on the other hand, is not known. As I have mentioned before, we cannot effectively radio-track the little ones because we do not have tiny transmitters that will last long enough to make surgeries worthwhile. In other words, it is not practical to surgically replace transmitters every few weeks, which would be necessary due to the tiny batteries such transmitters use.

One thing we do know about baby rattlesnakes, however, is that few of them survive their first six months of life. They are frequently encountered in September and October, shortly after birth, but they’re scarce by spring. We know they have many predators when they’re small but it is also not hard to imagine the little ones born in the riverbed remaining there for the winter and perishing in the flood. If so, that is just natural selection in action: those rattlesnakes, adult or baby, that fail to seek higher ground for the winter are less likely to survive and pass their genes on to future generations.

Keep in mind that, on average, if a pair of rattlesnakes – or any other kind of animal – produces more than replacements (i.e., kids that reach maturity and reproduce) for themselves in their lives, we would be swimming in rattlesnakes! Put another way, on average over time in a stable population, animals are just replacing themselves… which means that most offspring never live to adulthood.

If you have been reading my blog for very long, you will have read this before: Nature is a cruel mother! Most wild animals’ lives end in the jaws of another…or sometimes in a flood. That’s just the way it is.

On a brighter note, we started seeing some basking rattlesnakes on sunny days by the end of February last year. So we may well be within a few weeks of the kickoff of the 2017 rattlesnake season! (Remember, watch where you put your hands and feet once the weather turns warm and leave rattlesnakes alone when you encounter them and your chance of being bitten is very near zero!)

3 thoughts on “How are the rattlesnakes doing in the flood?”

  1. Are rattlesnake bites, adult sized snakes, that is, fatal to a human adult? I was hiking about in Arizona with daughter and son-in-law, and came upon one that apparently took offense to my climbing up a rocky hill too close to his or her shallow cave.

    Apparently a patient but still prepared sort, it was coiled while sending forth a second, much louder warning, which prompted me to face forward on the sharp but lovely to look at rocks and roll a few yards left, maintaining a somewhat horizontal position. Hoping to send the message that I’d much rather vacate the area than violate said snakes afternoon nap, I was able to crawl up and away without riling the reptile further.

    My son-in-law is a big strong guy, but I weigh about the same as he does, so I was wondering if I’d been bitten, would I have died out there in the wilds of Arizona?

    1. Hi Tana. Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal in the United States. On average, there are only about five annual snakebite deaths reported in the U.S, despite about 8,000 annual bites. That’s less than 1 fatality out of every 1000 bites (less than 1/10 of 1%)! And most of those bites occur after the bitten person either did not seek medical attention immediately or was not treated appropriately when he/she did reach help. The much greater danger from our venomous snakes (essentially pitvipers like rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads) is soft tissue damage around the bite, which can easily lead to extensive scarring, permanent impairment of a nearby joint, or even amputated fingers, etc. But death is very rare. The only effective treatment for a serious bite is lots of IV antivenom. Therefore, getting to a hospital emergency room safely but without delay is important. Experts agree that first aid in the field is ineffective and wastes time that should be spent getting to a hospital and antivenom. Some first aid procedures, including compression wraps, are actually dangerous. Read more about the most recent snakebite treatment guidelines here.

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