The Arizona Game and Fish Department displayed this Western Diamondback during a rattlesnake symposium at the Tucson Marriot University Park.

I am a rattlesnake and you have every reason to fear my bite.

My fangs dispense a venom that, among other things, begins digesting your muscle tissue within seconds.

Here's the thing: I don't want to bite you.

Yes, I am "coldblooded," the adjective you use for those who kill senselessly and without remorse.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Because I am coldblooded, I don't have an internal furnace that needs to be constantly supplied with fuel. I can eat occasionally and survive on one good meal a year if necessary.

Lucky for you.

I don't hop around like a bunny or flit frenetically like a hummingbird from food source to food source.

When it's cold, I go underground. When it's hot, I seek shade.

I am invisible.

I am here, blending into the undergrowth at the edge of this oasis you have created for me, waiting to ambush a ground squirrel attracted by the seeds of the plants you have watered.

If your little cart comes close, I will withdraw. If you approach me, I might rattle and might retreat.

If you stay out there on the fairway, I will stay right here.

You people scare the heck out of me.

Humans are the scary ones

Rattlesnakes have more reason to fear humans than humans have to fear them.

That was an underlying theme at a "Biology of the Rattlesnakes" conference held this week in Tucson and attended by 240 rattlesnake researchers and hobbyists, many of whom called for more public education about the beleaguered vipers.

The conference was hosted by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Chiricahua Desert Museum.

Aaron Corbit, who studies human-snake conflict in Loma Linda, Calif., said most people think that "venomous snakes are out to get them" but the reality is that we humans are the predators. We run over rattlesnakes on highways, destroy their habitat and kill them when they come too close to our homes.

Rattlers and other venomous snakes do inflict some damage, he said. Worldwide, there are about 5 million snake bites a year and 125,000 deaths.

In the United States, where lifestyle limits snake encounters and medical help is available, there are about 5,000 bites and 5 deaths, he said.

Man threatens snakes even in the wilderness, said Dave Prival, who studies twin-spotted rattlesnakes in the highest elevations of the Chiricahua Mountains in southeast Arizona.

For the rattlesnakes he studies, the two main threats are climate change and illegal collection.

The fairly rare snake - Prival estimates only 1,000 to 4,000 of them exist in the United States - is a prized specimen in illegal circles.

One snake that Prival had marked for study in 2006 was later offered for sale in North Carolina. Prival retrieved the snake but it died before he could re-introduce it to the wild.

Twin-spotted rattlesnakes make dens on big talus slides and hunt in the nearby conifer forests.

With a warming climate, those forests will be changing, and competitors will be moving up from lower altitudes, Prival said. The species at the top will have nowhere to go.

A warming and drying climate also makes the mountains more susceptible to fire, Prival said.

This summer, the 222,954-acre Horseshoe 2 Fire burned through both study areas where Prival and Mike Schroff have monitored populations for 13 years.

Prival has only had a brief visit since the fire. One site retains its surrounding forest, but that could lead to more recreational visits to the area, Prival said. "Everything else is gone."

Tiger rattlers studied

Even spots where man has "improved" habitat could ultimately harm rattlesnakes, said University of Arizona researcher Matt Goode.

Goode has studied Tiger rattlesnakes at a number of foothills sites near Tucson for 13 years, including two where resort and housing projects were planned.

In the Rocking K area, in the Rincon Mountain foothills southeast of Tucson, development has not yet occurred. That makes for a good comparison with Stone Canyon in the Tortolita Mountain foothills in Oro Valley, where a golf course and about 150 high-end homes have been built.

The homes are mostly occupied in winter, cutting down on human-snake interactions, and the golf course has created a permanent riparian area that provides feed for a healthy population of rodents.

The snakes at Stone Canyon eat more rodents than their sister species at Rocking K, Goode and Mickey Ray Parker reported in an article in the June issue of the International Reptile Conservation Foundation.

The Stone Canyon snakes grow bigger and the females get pregnant more often and bear bigger litters.

The big question for Goode and his team of researchers from the UA, is whether that increase in offspring is offset by the increased mortality that inevitably occurs when humans and snakes co-exist.

"Will Stone Canyon become an ecological trap, providing Tiger Rattlesnakes with all their needs only to bring them into contact with humans?" the study asks.

Tiger rattlesnakes, for their part, keep out of the way. "They are pretty chill," said Goode. "They don't seem to do a whole lot."

"Historically, we have seen rattlesnakes as evil objects that can hurt us," said Harry Greene, the dean of rattlesnake researchers.

Greene, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell University, said he used his keynote speech at the conference to urge his fellow herpetologists to educate a wider community about the "richer inner worlds and outer worlds" of the rattlesnake.

Greene has seen rattlesnakes tamp down prairie grass before adopting an ambush stance on a prey trail, found after 20 minutes of tongue flicking.

He praised a presentation by ASU researcher Melissa Amarello, who showed time-lapse photography that appears to show rattlesnakes shielding their young from predators and herding them to the safety of a den.

Greene said he has found that people can be lured into an appreciation of the creatures when they know more about them.

You need to respect rattlesnakes, he said, but you needn't fear them. "These are not aggressive animals. These are defensive animals," he said.

 

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 574-4158.