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I was driving on a farm road yesterday morning when I saw an elongated shape lying in front of me. I knew immediately that it was a snake.
I make it a practice never to bypass snakes in the road. There are too many fools who make sport out of crushing snakes with their vehicles, so I always shoo snakes out of harm’s way when I can. I parked my car and walked back to this snake. I quickly recognized it as a Mohave Rattlesnake.
It is with reason that Arizona is referred to as the world’s rattlesnake capital. We have more species of rattlesnakes (as many as 18 distinct species) than anywhere else. It’s pretty difficult to live in this state without seeing one of these creatures sooner or later. I’ve had dozens of encounters with rattlers over the decade that we’ve lived here.
A rattlesnake is a species of pit viper. There are pit vipers in many parts of the world, but rattlesnakes as a subset live only in the Western Hemisphere. Rattlesnakes are distinguished by their rattles — those organs of keratin (the same substance as human’s fingernails) at the tips of their tails, that make a distinctive buzzing noise when vibrated.
Pit vipers get their names from their pits — heat sensitive organs that are on the fronts of their faces, below their nostrils. In this next image you can clearly see this rattlesnake’s pits. showing up as circular dark depressions on the snake’s face.
Rattlesnakes are ambush predators. They don’t actively pursue prey. Their hunting style is to lie in wait for their next meal — very often, a small rodent — to walk within striking range and then, to strike at it with lightning speed. They have decent vision, but their primary senses are heat detection via their pits and an exquisitely refined ability to sense odors. Rattlesnakes’ famously forked tongues can “taste” scent molecules hovering in the air. The forks in the tongue tell the rattlesnake from which side a scent is coming, thus enabling the snake to move in the direction of a good ambush spot — such as a rodent’s pathway — or to find the body of something that it has bitten.
By far the dominant rattlesnake species in our community is the Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake. I probably see 10 Diamondbacks for every one of all of the other local species combined. Mohaves closely resemble Diamondbacks, but their color may be somewhat different as it the pattern of scales near their tails. Mohaves also have distinctive scales (“scutes”) on their heads that Diamondbacks lack.
This Mohave is an especially beautiful snake, with a pattern of deep tan and yellow scales with a slight greenish tint when viewed from some angles. That hint of green gives the Mohave the nickname of “Green Mohave.”
All rattlesnakes are venomous and the Mohave is no exception to that rule. It carries a potent venom in its saliva, reportedly among the most lethal of all rattlesnake venoms. The lethality of a Mohave’s venom has given this snake a fearsome reputation as being the rattler one least wants to encounter. People seem to go out of their way to express animosity towards this species.
It’s unfortunate because the Mohave is, in fact, no more likely to bite a human than is any other species of rattlesnake. Reputation aside, rattlesnakes have no interest in biting people. We’re not edible and they will happily ignore us so long as we don’t menace or molest them. Rattlesnakes are never aggressive. No human has ever been chased by one. However, they will defend themselves and their venom is their only weapon in what is usually a very uneven fight with a human antagonist. In Arizona each year — with our population of almost 10 million people — there are only about 300 snakebites, and most of those are sustained by people who interacted foolishly with a rattler.
A rattlesnake can strike to a distance of about 2/3 its body length. This Mohave was about 3 feet (about a meter) long, so I knew that as long as I stayed at least that far away from the snake I’d be in no danger.
“My” Mohave was extremely docile. I spent at least 15 minutes photographing it from a respectful distance of about 10 feet (about 3 meters). It certainly was aware of my presence and it watched me cautiously. However, It never rattled, and never sought to strike at me. At the end of our session, I decided to move the snake from harm’s way in the road. For that purpose I used my monopod, extended to its full length of six feet. I gently prodded the snake with the tip of my monopod. It showed no reaction, so I slid the monopod’s tip beneath the snake, lifted it a few inches, and deposited it in the brush at roadside. I watched, as it crawled slowly away and disappeared.
Images made with a Canon R5, Canon EF 400mm f4 DO II lens+Canon EF 1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO’s varied, f9 @ 1/2500.