Yesterday we ran into our friend Carol on her way to the herpetology class at the Southwestern Research station. Carol invited us to join her for the next presentation. It was a public talk on rattlesnakes. Specifically rattlesnake bites and why and where people get bit. Mainly you need to know this: Rattlesnakes do not want to bite humans or anything bigger than they can eat. It’s a waste of venom. Venom production is hard work.
Venom can be a cytotoxin (attacks specific cells) or a neurotoxin (attacks the nervous system). Some snakes, like the locally famous mojave, can have both. Lucky for us we live in a country with a well developed medical system and people rarely die from bites if they seek medical care. There is no appropriate first aid for a snake bite. If you are bitten seek medical attention. Many tens of thousands of people die from snake bites in other parts of the world. This is generally attributed to higher populations of poisonous snakes and higher concentrations of humans living in proximity to poisonous snakes and less developed medical systems.
But are rattlesnakes aggressive and dangerous? How can I avoid a bite? Some small number of people are bitten every year by accident but the largest percentage of bites are from people ‘teasing’ snakes. I saw myself very recently who much some snakes do not want to bite. My hand and face was a mere inches from an unseen snake and it rattled and opened up its mouth and showed its shiny fangs but I still had ample time to scream and jump away. Trust me on this: I did not out move that snake. If that snake wanted me it would have caught me.
One experimenter took a fake boot and leg out into the wilds and fake stepped on rattlesnakes. Sixty percent of the time the snakes fled. Sometimes they rattled a warning. Less than 5% of STEPPED ON snakes struck the fake boot. Our presenter, a zoo keeper from the Phoenix Zoo named Drew, shared a large analysis of bites and the types of circumstances that resulted in bites. Alcohol and men under 27 are at highest risk. The vast majority of bites are incurred by silly young men playing with snakes while drinking. I find snakes hard to resist so I understand the drive. If I drank more I might get in trouble. As we’ve discussed I have some masculine tendencies. Desire to play with snakes should be on the list.
Medical professionals are profilers just like the rest of us. They have lists of characteristics of types of people likely to develop certain diseases. Here are the Seven T’s of snake bite:
6. Teasing snake
7. Teeth missing
There are 13 species of rattlesnake in Arizona. Two people are bitten every three days on average. Sever injury can result but death is very rare. At least in the US we don’t have to worry about the Side-stabbing stiletto snakes. Alliteration and a poisonous snake that cn nick you without opening its mouth.
After our presentation on how not to get bit and how hard it is to get bit we went and watched Drew safely handle some rattlesnakes. The Herpetology class has been cruising the roads looks for snakes and lizards. Two rattlesnakes were collected. A beautiful black-tailed rattlesnake from the research station grounds and a newborn Mojave from out in the desert. Zoo keepers and snake researchers need techniques to safely handle snakes. I was startled to learn number of modern era medicines are derived from snake venom. I knew anti-venom was made from venom but it’s more complicated than that. Many ACE inhibitors and a very effective diabetes medicine are venom derived. Check out the story HERE. Venomous animals of all types are being used in pharmaceutical research.
Handling snakes is a job requirement for zoo keepers. Tubing is a common way to allow a complete inspection of the snake and it allows access to the cloaca. Drew showed us how he uses a snake hook and tries to persuade the snake to enter into the tube. He’s using the snakes desire to get away and avoid conflict to direct it into the tube. Once the snake is partway into the tube the handler takes a firm grip of the posterior end and can hold the snake. The head it safely encircled in plastic. Do not try this at home. If you do try this at home, be sure to use a tube of small enough diameter so the snake cannot do a u-turn and bite you. I repeat, do not try this at home. That second warning was for me.
Our trained handlers explained that snake handling is a one person job. It requires intense concentration and a person must have total control over the tools. This is no time to lend a helping hand. It could be your hand that gets in the way. The class watched in silence as Drew caught the snakes. People did not cowd and gave him room to work. Once he had the snake safely in hand we all pushed in to get pictures and see or touch. The class leader showed us how to use a probe and determine the sex of the snakes. The probe is pushed into the colaca and the depth determines if you have a male or female. Females have shallow empty cloacas and males have deeper cloacas where a hemipenis can be detected with the probe. Click HERE and you’ll get an eyeful. I warned you. The snakes seemed calm through it all. Maybe the tube acts like a cattle squeeze chute. They were released back into their natural environs near where they were found.
So there you have it. Thanks to Carol and the SWRS for allowing us a peek into the training of our next generation of scientists.