The Rattlesnakes of Arizona
A Structured Ethnographic Interview and Ethnosemantic
© 1999 by James
This paper presents and analyzes
the domain of Rattlesnakes of Arizona as expressed by a person of
greater than common knowledge. Taxonomic classification of rattlesnakes
and rattlesnake attributes are the primary focus. Cause-effect, spatial,
functional and sequence relationships are also expressed in the domain.
I interviewed a person dedicated
to educating people about rattlesnakes. He lectures on rattlesnakes
and presents live rattlesnake shows. His educational efforts focus
on understanding rattlesnake behavior and what is proper and safe
human behavior in relation to rattlesnakes. He tries to convince people
to not kill rattlesnakes, to relocate them instead. He encourages
understanding of the beneficial role of rattlesnakes in rodent control
and consequent human disease vector control.
My informant is called upon to
remove and relocate rattlesnakes from human use areas. He releases
them into habitats undisturbed by people. He is the founder and owner
of a live rattlesnake exhibit, a business and a vehicle for educating
the public. He has been featured in articles and other media because
of his experience with, knowledge of, and interest in rattlesnakes.
He majored in communications and studied zoology at the university
Most of the interview took place
in the informant's place of work, a live rattlesnake exhibit. The
interview incorporated a live rattlesnake show with the informant
handling and displaying five large and venomous rattlesnakes. The
interview was concluded at a place of refreshment. Just under two
hours was spent with the informant on the first day. Another hour
was spent to review the material.
The material presented herein
is based on these interviews and is not intended to be a definite
monograph on the subject. This project is an ethnographic interview
assignment, not a taxonomy. I am aware that the information does not
conform to modern nomenclature and scientific understanding of herpetologists.
I am reporting information as stated by another person, a person speaking
freely without accessing reference materials. I am an anthropologist,
not a zoologist. If you have questions about venomous snakes, do not
contact me. I cannot help you. I recommend the Herpetology
Webliography as a starting point. The links there address scientific
study of herpetology including ecology, behavior, systematics, and
biogeography, and includes a link to a discussion group.
The rattlesnakes of Arizona is
the domain considered. Herein Table 1 and Table 2 present strict inclusion
charts of alternate taxonomies for this domain, one a common scheme
and one a scientific classification. The informant is versed in both
schemes and uses the nomenclature and classifications interchangeably.
Taxonomy of the rattlesnakes is an important and fundamental aspect
of the domain. Recognition of species is important due to a factor-of-twenty
difference in their venomous quality. The second set of semantic relationships
detailed and charted is attributes of rattlesnakes. In Table 3 both
the common and contrasting attributes of rattlesnakes are presented
in outline form. Attributes are used in distinguishing rattlesnakes
from other snakes as well as in determining the species and subspecies
Kinds of Rattlesnakes
in Arizona. A strict inclusion chart* based on common names.
Under the common classification scheme a rattlesnake is a
rattlesnake. Two genera of rattlesnakes are rattlesnakes.
Each rattlesnake is called a "type" of rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes
have both scientific names and various common names. There
are seventeen "types" of rattlesnakes known in Arizona. Common
names are the ones the informant used in our conversations
and during a live rattlesnake show presented at the rattlesnake
Genera and Species
| 1. Western
| 2. Mohave,
| 3. Arizona
| 4. Speckled,
| 5. Tiger
| 6. Grand
| 7. Twin-Spotted
| 8. Ridgenose
| 9. Banded
| 10. Western Massasauga,
|| Sisturus milarius
| 11. Prairie, Western
|| Crotalus viridis
| 12. Arizona Black
|| Crotalus viridis
| 13. Great Basin
|| Crotalus viridis
| 14. Hopi
|| Crotalus viridis
| 15. Colorado Sidewinder
|| Crotalus cerastes
| 16. Sonoran Sidewinder
|| Crotalus cerastes
| 17. Desert Sidewinder
|| Crotalus cerastes
| * This
table can also be used as a synonymy chart in which each of
the common names is equivalant to any other common name of the
same number, as well as with the scientific binomial. Also,
viridis and cerates species are two groups with
synonymous subspecies of the species groups.
Kinds of Rattlesnakes
in Arizona. A strict inclusion chart of the scientific taxonomy.
Herein the known species and subspecies are presented according
to their scientific classification. The genus Sisturus
represents the pygmy rattlesnakes, of which one species
is known in Arizona. In the genus Crotalus there are
ten species and six subspecies of two of the species.
| 1. Crotalus
|| 5. Crotalus
| 2. Crotalus
|| 6. Crotalus
| 3. Crotalus
|| 7. Crotalus
| 4. Crotalus
Subspecies of Crotalus
Subspecies of Crotulus
|9. Crotalus viridis
||14. Crotalus cerastes
|10. Crotalus viridis
||15. Crotalus cerastes
|11. Crotalus viridis
||16. Crotalus cerastes
|12. Crotalus viridis
|13. Crotalus viridis
|17. Sisturus milarius
The information conveyed by the informant emphasized
these two spheres of information and also included cause-effect of
rattlesnake bites, rationale of rattlesnakes biting humans, functions
of rattlesnake sensory apparatus, spatial models of rattlesnake territories,
ranges and habitats, and a sequence model for behavior if you hear
a rattle or are bitten.
There are "seventeen different types of rattlesnakes"
in Arizona. Direct elicitation revealed that "types" refers to the
"eleven main species and six subspecies" so far known and recorded
in Arizona. Rattlesnakes in Arizona belong to two genera of snakes.
One species is a member of the genus Sisturus. "The smaller
pygmy rattlers are in the Sisturus." The remainder are members
of the genus Crotalus. Arizona has more types of rattlesnakes
than in any other area in their range, with seventeen of the "thirty
known species, including subspecies" of rattlesnakes.
The Types of Rattlesnakes
The Western Diamondback rattlesnake,
Crotalus atrox, is the most common species. They are difficult
to see; "they blend in very well." "Many years ago it wasn't too uncommon
to find six-footers, but now with habitat destruction ... seeing anything
over four feet is pretty rare." The Western Diamondback range is Arkansas
to Southern California and south into Northern Mexico. They have ten
rattles at about 5-6 years of age.
The most venomous rattlesnake
in North America is the Mohave, Crotalus scutulatus," also
called 'Three-Steppers' and 'Greenbacks.' Mohaves and Western Diamondbacks
are "the two main snakes you are going to run across." "The Mohaves
have a neurotoxic venom ... twenty times more toxic than the actual
Western Diamondbacks." The Mohave "contributes to the most fatalities"
in the Southwest. They are a "very secretive and non-aggressive rattlesnake"
but a very deadly rattlesnakes, comparable to cobras. For every ten
to fifteen Diamondbacks, one Mohave is found. It is distinguished
by its very green color, an adaptation to sit on " the tops of Palo
Verde trees, the tops of cactus ... waiting to ambush birds." While
Mohaves are the second most common, the Arizona Blacktail or Blacktail
Rattlesnake, Crotalus molossus, is the third most common rattlesnake
The Arizona Speckled Rattlesnake,
Crotalus mitchelli, "has a very unique distinction ... of being
the only blue-eyed snake in the entire Northern Hemisphere." Its coloration
"ranges all the way from a snow white, all the way to a grey, all
the way to royal blue in some areas, and in the red rock areas it
will actually take on a red tint." Their head is small, and as a bat
eater they are unique. They are "twice as venomous as a Western Diamondback"
although "full grown at three feet" in length. They are most prevalent
in mountains in the Gila Bend to Yuma area. They are an uncommon species.
Some rattlesnake species are
very rare and have small ranges. The Banded Rock Rattlesnake, Crotalus
lepidus is "a very obscure, protected species in the Chiricahua
mountains." The Ridgenose Rattlesnake, Crotalus willardi, is
a another very rare, protected species, also found in the Chiricahua
Mountains in southern Arizona, as is Sisturus milarius, the
Western Massasauga, "a pygmy rattler." Smaller pygmy rattlers are
placed in the genus Sisturus. The Tiger Rattlesnake, Crotalus
tigris, is also "very rare" and has distinct tiger-like stripes.
Two species have subspecies. The Prairie Rattlesnake,
Crotalusviridis, is found in Eastern Arizona. The subspecies
of the Prairie (also called the Western Rattlesnake) include the Grand
Canyon Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis abyssus, which is found
in the Grand Canyon. The Hopi Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis nuntius,
is "mostly found ... in the Hopi reservation area." The Arizona Black,
Crotalus viridis cerebus, "is a high mountain, high elevation
rattlesnake," typically above 6,000 feet. "The black color ... is
an adaptive, protective device to absorb as much heat as possible
in those colder climates." The fourth subspecies of the Prairie Rattlesnake
is the Great Basin Rattlesnake, Crotalus viridis lutosus. There
are one species and two subspecies of Sidewinder Rattlesnakes, the
Colorado Sidewinder, Crotalus cerastes, the Sonoran Sidewinder,
Crotalus cerastes cercobombus, and the Desert sidewinder, Crotalus
Rattlesnakes in General
The "rattlesnake range" is "all
the way from 53° latitude north in Southern Canada all the way
down through the entire U. S., into Mexico, Central America, the Yucatan,
into South America down to 35° latitude south." In the Arizona
low desert "rattlesnake season" is the end of February and March.
It is the "least opportune time to be bit. It is actually when they
are fully venomized, coming out of their hibernaculums, ready to eat
and they are very short-tempered."
Rattlesnakes are termed a "live-bearer,
like a mammal." Most reptiles lay eggs. "They are the only snakes
that we know of that express maternal instincts. They protect their
young from several hours all the way to several weeks, until they
do their first shedding." "Two to eleven babies are born every August."
Baby rattlesnakes are very venomous. "They're very deadly, very, very
dangerous right from the start." "Babies actually will eject all of
their venom, as opposed to the adults that will eject some of their
venom some of the time." Baby rattlesnakes do not have rattles; rattles
develop after several skin sheddings. "Rattlesnakes don't necessarily
rattle all the time." "They rattle when they feel threats." They also
use their rattles for "intra-communication" called "caudaling." "It
is like a Morse code." They slowly click to each other.
They "have pits between their
eye and their nostril that is a sophisticated skin membrane that can
actually pick up one degree variance in temperature up to twenty or
thirty feet away." This sensory organ is "like a thousand dot" grid.
"Even though they don't have an auditory device, an ear, what they
do have is the ability, through their pits, to pick up sound." "They
can hear someone walking towards them from up to 100 yards away without
any problem." Their tongue is used as a sensory organ to "pick up
air molecules." They can detect prey or predators by this means. Rattlesnakes
use fangs to inject venom. The "hypodermic fangs on a rattlesnake
work just like a hypodermic needle."
Hikers should not be hiking alone
in rattlesnake country. "If you do hear a rattle, depending upon ...
how far away it is ... the best advice is to be perfectly still."
If "that snake is right on top of you, you need to be as perfectly
still as long as you can." "Then if you have a stick with you ...
put the stick between you and the snake." "Do not move at all, wait
for it to calm down then slowly back up." "You never want to run."
"Running in the desert is one of the last things you want to do."
Where you find one snake there can be many more.
If bitten "the best advice is
to be as immobile, as still, as you possibly can." "You do need to
get to a hospital within two hours, that is the number one axiom today."
A "loose, constricting band between the bite and the heart is very
recommended." "Anti-venin is a must. It neutralizes the devastating
effects of the venom." It "is a valid statistic" that eighty percent
of those bitten are males between 20 and 50. "Many of those in that
category are involved in alcohol consumption."
"The average person (that gets
bit) is not from Arizona." "A lot of people who are bit are, unfortunately,
from out of town." "Bites have increased to 400 a year reported bites
as a result of habitat destruction, interaction with these animals
through construction/development sites...." This is a significant
increase due to "more people that are moving into snake territory."
"There is a death about every 24 months to 36 months on the average."
"Everyone that is bitten, that actually is venomized, has long-lasting
consequences, including loss of motor dexterity, loss of tissue."
Ninety percent of those bitten "are doing something that they should
not have been doing to the snake in the first place." "Many of the
people who are bit ... step right on them." "Ten percent are classified
as legitimate bites."
According to the informant, people who are bitten
by rattlesnakes have "a very hostile behavior towards these types
of animals" and those who like snakes are bitten infrequently.
The informant reports that in a controlled study snakes in an enclosure
reacted defensively to ranchers who kill rattlesnakes and passively
to zoologists who like them. "They usually, most of the
time, know if they are in danger or not and they are pretty accurate
about that. I believe they have tremendous perceptive telepathic
powers." "They seem to know if you are out to help
them or out to hurt them." "They will most definitely,
most definitely retreat if they have a chance. They are not
out to get humans."
Some Additional Terminology
communal dens where some rattlesnakes hibernate in the winter.
"Snake territory" is anywhere
"Legitimate bites" are the ten
percent of bites not caused by human provocation.
"Venomized" is to be injected
with snake venom.
"Fatal statistic" is a person
who dies from a rattlesnake bite.
"Dry bites" are when a snake
bites but does not inject venom.
"Right on top of you" means within striking
Analysis of the Data
A strict inclusion taxonomy of
Arizona Rattlesnakes can be constructed according to two different
schemas. Under the common name schema all rattlesnakes are in a single
group. Table 1 presents the common name scheme, with the various common
names for several of the types and also their scientific names. As
such Table 1 also serves as a synonymy chart. Table 2 presents the
scientific scheme of classification. In the scientific schema a single
species of pygmy rattlesnake is in one genus while ten species are
members of another genus together with six subspecies. The separation
of pygmy rattlesnakes into a separate genus is based on size of the
snakes. Five types of Prairie Rattlesnakes are grouped in one species,
with Crotalus viridis viridis as the type species. Three types
of Sidewinder Rattlesnakes are grouped in one species, with Crotalus
cerastes as the type.
The attributes of rattlesnakes
are used in both defining rattlesnakes as a group and in distinguishing
types, species and subspecies of rattlesnakes. The taxonomy of rattlesnakes
is dependent on understanding their attributes. Table 3 focuses on
both their common and their contrasting attributes. Let us consider
first the contrasting attributes. The species and subspecies distinction
seemed most significant in the data gathered, and therefore is used
herein as the first order distinction. Species and subspecies is also
an exclusive model, with each rattlesnake being a separate entity
with no overlap.
The contrasting data expresses
various subsets of data, including the spatial relationships of the
diverse species. Some species have distinct ranges. Several of the
species share the low desert habitat and several rare species occur
only in the Chiricahuas. Therefore characteristics other than range
are needed to separate some of them. The spatial data is an integral
aspect of species distinctions and the informant correlated species
to range in almost every type. This is not surprising because speciation
results from geographic separation and adaptations to diverse habitats
and resources. Several other differentiating subsets of attributes
were employed by the informant, including degree of venomy, size and
ecology of ranges, population sizes (from most common to very rare
and as proportions), physical size, distinct behaviors and color
variations. All these subsets are parts of the complex set of diverse
attributes used to distinguish the seventeen types of rattlesnakes.
The data indicates that several attribute subsets are needed to distinguish
Only a few of the attributes
serve both as common and contrasting attributes. Skin color as
is a common attribute. Variations in color are contrasting attributes.
Likewise venomy is a common attribute and degree of venomy is a contrasting
Of the common attributes that
define a rattlesnake two subsets are immediately apparent, behaviors
and body parts. Both body parts and behaviors both also have an important
subset; their functions are relevant. The rattle is more than a rattle,
and without some information of its function and the context of its
use our understanding of rattlesnakes would be diminished. Rattlesnake
sensory pits, fangs, tongue and skin colors likewise are best understood
in relation to their functions. How a rattlesnake employs its attributes
is an important aspect of the definition of a rattlesnake. Therefore
rather than just list the body parts and venom their respective functions
The data also presents several sequence relationships
regarding human behavior. Both are the informant's recommendations
regarding human behavior in relation to rattlesnakes, courses of action
if one hears a rattle or if one is bitten. Each of these scenario
relationships includes proscribed behavior to avoid unwanted outcomes.
Rationale relationships were expressed for following the recommended
scenario and not doing the proscribed behavior in both scenarios.
Usefulness of the Data
Knowing how many rattlesnakes exist, where snakes
live, which is most venomous, what to do if bitten, and how to avoid
bites can make the difference between life and very serious and long
lasting injury or even death. My informant said that an "ounce of
prevention" can spare a person a very expensive hospitalization.
It was difficult to perceive what questions
to ask in the initial interview without some analysis time. A series
of short interviews seems a recommendable method. In analyzing the
data I discovered that the domain is far more complex than I had expected
when I choose the topic. I previously had no idea of the total number
of types of rattlesnakes in Arizona. I thought there were only a few.
Suggestions for Further Study
Several aspects of the domain
were not fully explored or analyzed herein and represent areas for
continuing study. These include the functions of rattlesnake attributes,
the contrasting attributes of the rare species and more exactive delineation
of ranges and ecological habitats. Details about the constituents
and bioactivity of venom have not been explored. The informant provided
far more information about the common species than about the rare
species. The Chiricahua area species might offer a fertile area for
exploration of the informant's understanding of the relationship of
that area's unique sky islands ecology to speciation. Also, interviewing
other experts in the same field would be useful in confirming which
understandings are most universally held.
Attributes of Rattlesnakes. An
outline of common and contrasting attributes.
A. Common attributes of rattlesnakes.
1. Rattlesnake behaviors.
B. Contrasting attributes of rattlesnakes.
a. Rattlesnakes are
live-bearers that protect their young when born.
2. Rattlesnake body parts.
b. Rattlesnakes are dangerous and deadly animals.
c. Rattlesnakes can strike two-thirds of their body length.
d. Rattlesnakes will "most definitely retreat if they have a chance."
e. Rattlesnakes are "secretive and non-aggressive."
a. Rattles. They're not really a
rattle, this is a misnomer.
(1.) Rattles are
"a series of interlocking segments that are bouncing against each
other." They are hollow and "made of keratin just like fingernails."
b. Rattlesnakes have pits between their eye
and their nostril, a sensory organ that detects motion and temperature.
They can detect someone walking one hundred yards away.
(2.) Rattles are shaken at high speed to emit a "Don't thread
on me" warning.
(3.) Rattlesnakes "rattle when they feel threats."
(4.) The rattle is developed after several shedddings of the skin.
(5.) The rattle is used for intra-species communication. The slow
clicking sound used to communicate is called "caudaling."
c. Their fangs (also called "hypodermic fangs") are used to inject
venom into their prey.
d. The tongue is used as a sensory organ to detect prey or predators.
e. Skin (scales) color functions as camouflage to "blend in very
well with their surroundings."
f. Rattlesnakes are venomous.
(1.) Venom is used
to disable prey, the "true purpose of their venom."
(2.) The venom tags prey with a receptor that they can sense from
a distance. This gives them the ability to track a wounded prey.
(3.) Toxic properties can cause death or lasting harm, "including
loss of motor dexterity and loss of tissue."
1. Western Diamondback Rattlesnake.
a. It is the most
common rattlesnake in Arizona, by a factor of over ten.
2. Mohave Rattlesnake.
b. It has the widest geographic ranging of all Arizona rattlesnakes.
The range is from Arkansas to Southern California and south into
c. It is the largest rattlesnake in Arizona, attaining a length
of six feet.
a. It is the second
most common type. For every ten to fifteen Diamondbacks one Mohave
3. Arizona Blacktail Rattlesnake
b. It is a very secretive and non-aggressive snake.
c. Is the most venomous, with a neurotoxic venom "twenty times more
venomous than the actual Western Diamondbacks."
d. It is very green in color for a rattlesnake, an adaptation for
sitting in trees or on cacti while hunting birds.
a. The range is Arizona
and Southeastern California.
4. Arizona Speckled Rattler.
b. It is the third most common rattlesnake in Arizona.
c. It is four to five feet in length.
d. It does not have "a true hibernation period" and will be seen
sunning in mid-winter.
e. It is blacker in color than the other rattlesnakes in the desert.
a. The full grown
size is three feet in length.
5. The Tiger Rattlesnake has a stripped pattern
like a tiger.
b. It is the only blue-eyed snake in the Northern Hemisphere.
c. Coloration varies from snow white to grey to royal blue in some
areas, with a red tint in red rock areas.
d. The head is small, an adaptation for preying in animals in cracks
e. It is a bat eater as well as preying on other animals.
f. It is a very uncommon species typically found in the Gila Bend
and Yuma areas.
6. The Prairie Rattlesnake is found in Eastern Arizona.
7. Arizona Black Rattlesnake.
a. Their habitat is
the high mountain, high elevation region, typically above 6,000
8. The Hopi Rattlesnake is mostly found and is
very common in the Hopi reservation area.
b. The black color is an adaptive device to absorb heat.
9. The Grand Canyon Rattlesnake is found in the Grand Canyon area.
10. Some species of rattlesnakes are found only in the Chiricahua
Mountains in Southeastern Arizona.
a. The Banded Rock
Rattlesnake is a very obscure temperate species.
11. The three species of Sidewinders have distinct
habitats in the low desert of Southwestern Arizona.
b. The Ridgenose Rattlesnake is a very rare, legally protected species.
c. The Twin-Spotted Rattlesnake.
d. The Western Massasauga is a pygmy rattlesnake.