Fort Bowie is home to thirty species of reptiles, two of them being rattlesnakes, the black-tailed and Western diamondback. As a vital component of the park's ecosystem, rattlesnakes are protected, like all plants and animals. Rattlesnakes help control rodent populations, a large portion of their diet. Predators, whether bobcats or coyotes or snakes, control prey that can grow out of balance otherwise. Rattlesnakes are also important prey for raptors and other animals like the coyote and raccoon, allowing a balanced ecosystem.
What can you do to help protect rattlesnakes?Do not harm a rattlesnake when found in the park.The best thing to do is allow the rattlesnake to continue as it was and observe from a safe distance. Always watch where you place your hands and feet, taking extra caution climbing or walking among rocks and deep grass. Because rattlesnakes are venomous, visitors should educate themselves on identification and precautions.
Rattlesnakes are only dangerous to people when they fail to respect the snake's personal space. Rattlers typically strike at human beings when they feel threatened by them. Statistics show that most bites occur when a person provokes a snake by either accidently stepping on one or purposely trying to capture, harass, or kill the animal. Statistics show that more than 65 percent of rattlesnake bites are provoked by the person who is bitten.
When a person discovers they are sharing the same space with a rattler, it is the person's behavior and actions that determines how the encounter goes. What are your chances of being bitten by a rattlesnake? According to the American International Rattlesnake Museum, lightning strikes pose a much greater threat to human beings than rattlesnakes.
How can a person prepare themselves for possible encounters with rattlesnakes? Expect them. Snakes are most active in the park April through October. During the hottest months they are most active early morning, late afternoon and at night.
To avoid conflicts with rattlesnakes, leave them alone. Never handle a rattlesnake, even after it is dead, even if its head is separated from its body. A rattlesnake head can still bite for several hours after death.
If you are lucky enough to encounter a rattlesnake while visiting the park, what should you do? Don't panic, respect the snake's personal space, don't hassle or try to pick it up, and go a safe distance around. This will provide you and the snake a positive experience, one you can tell your friends about.
If a bite occurs:
Rattlesnakes are classified as "pit vipers" because they have a pair of heat sensitive pits just below their nostrils, allowing them to sense warm-blooded prey by its body heat. These pits allow the snake a "thermal image", even in the dark.
Using hollow, needle-like fangs that fold out when the mouth opens, rattlesnakes inject venom in split-second contact with prey, or an animal or human that poses a direct threat to the snake. The fangs have venom ducts that connect to glands under their back jaws. These jaws are connected with ligaments only, allowing them to stretch greatly around prey.
Rattlesnakes are extremely sensitive to chemical cues. Their long, forked tongues, which they stick out to pick up scents, transmit odors to receptors in what is called a "Jacobson's organ" at the roof of their mouths, allowing the snakes to follow odor trails of envenomated prey.
Rattlesnakes don't have ears but they can pick up, or feel, vibrations.
Very familiar with their home ranges, rattlesnakes have favorite spots for hunting, resting, nesting, and return over and over again to places where they were born, where they have given birth and even places they have mated in the past.
Rattlesnakes are ambush hunters. They stake out a spot and wait until prey comes close enough to strike, which is about one third to one half their body length. They do not stalk prey, except to follow the scent trails of envonomated prey.
Males will follow scent trails of females, with mating on their minds. If two males come upon a female, they will fight over her, wrestling with each other, until the stronger one throws down the other. They don't bite or injure each other, but will continue to wrestle until the weaker snake backs down.
Rattlesnakes have elaborate courtship rituals but only about 10 percent of these will result in copulation. A pair of courting rattlers can mate up to 12 hours at a time. A mother rattlesnake gives birth to live young during the monsoon season.
There are 13 types of rattlesnakes in Arizona, 9 of which can be seen here in Cochise County. The most commonly seen are the Western diamondback, Mojave, and black-tailed.
A recent study of black-tailed rattlesnakes in the Chiricahua mountains revealed mother rattlesnakes remain with their babies after birth for about 10 days, until the young snakes shed their first skin and are better able to defend themselves.