Friday, June 4, 2010

"Other Species"

“CAUTION: You are in a natural habitat! Rattlesnakes and other species may be present.”

For many people, the mere idea of a snake elicits a reaction of fear. Attach a rattle to that idea, and that fear escalates to sheer terror. In response to these raw emotions, warning signs like this have been posted in some city parks and preserves. Casting aside a rational discussion about “caution,” “natural habitats,” and “other species,” this article aims to honor some of the non-rattle bearing species of snakes that you might encounter near Deem Hills.

Arizona is home to fifty-two species of snakes, thirty-eight of which are non-venomous or only mildly so. Venomous or not, snakes are much like humans in that their primary interests are food and finding a mate. Unlike us, our local serpents are normally not aggressive towards anything bigger than what they can eat. Since humans are much too large to waste venom on or to wrestle with, their natural instinct is to escape when they see one of us. Of the non-venomous species, about sixteen kinds may be found in natural areas and adjacent developed neighborhoods around north Phoenix.

If you see a snake, you can safely stand close enough to quietly observe characteristics that you need to identify what species you have the fortune to cross paths with. Head shape, skin color, pattern and texture, body length, shape of pupils, habitat, and whether the skin is shiny or matte are all useful indicators to notice. The time of day is also important, because many snakes are strictly nocturnal, so are very rarely seen during the day unless they were unfortunate to become roadkill. During the hottest summer months, desert snakes are primarily nocturnal, but most snakes hibernate underground during the cooler months between November and March.

Of the twenty or so species that you are most likely to see on the north suburban fringe of Phoenix, including the rattlers and coral snake, only seven species are commonly active both day and night during warm seasons. These are the Western Diamondback, Mohave Rattler, Ground Snake, Gopher Snake, Western Patch-nosed, Red Racer, and Black-necked Garter Snake.

By far the most frequently encountered of our “other species” are Gopher Snakes, one of the most widespread and abundant serpents not only in Arizona, but continent wide. They live in almost every habitat in Arizona including urban areas, but excluding alpine tundra. Gopher Snakes are often mistaken for their venomous cousins, because their scale patterns and color are so similar to some rattlesnake species, and even have black and white stripes that resemble the tail of a diamondback. Their scales are also keeled rather than smooth, and have a matte finish like a rattler. Distinctive differences are at both ends of the Gopher Snake. A good look at the tip of the tail (no rattle) and head (slender, not bulky and triangular) should set your mind at ease. If you can see their eyeballs, you might also notice that Gophers have round black pupils rather than vertical pupils like the rattlers. Gopher Snakes grow huge, up to nine feet long, which can be alarming, but we are way too big for them to eat, so rest assured that these slender beasts would not try to constrict and try to swallow a human or your dog.

Like many snake species, Gopher Snakes make excellent pest control, that is, if you don’t consider them to be a pest. They’ll eat rats, mice and ground squirrels, as well as the occasional rattlesnake and its eggs. Many other snake species eat termites, scorpions, spiders and centipedes, some of the common desert critters around home that we tend to have negative reactions to.

If you see a snake of any kind, the best plan of action is to leave it alone and walk away. Most likely, it will slither away to safety, as they know that we are far more dangerous to them than they are to us. Homeowners in Stetson Hills who wish to have any type of snake removed from their property can call neighborhood herpetologist Mark Russell at 602-315-7978, who will gladly come to your home to capture and relocate the snake.

An excellent resource for more information on snakes is “A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona “by T.C. Brennan and A.T. Holycross. An expanded version of the guide is also found on-line at

Gopher Snake photos courtesy of Rick Halliburton.

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