Week 10, Day 4: Snakes

Rosa is the New Mexico milk snake that lives at the Los Alamos Nature Center. These snakes have not been documented in Los Alamos County, but are found at nearby lower elevations, like the Rio Grande Valley. (Photo by Elena Giorgi)

Welcome to Take It Outside! This week, we are getting to know our local reptiles and amphibians, collectively known as herptiles — or herps!

On Monday, we learned about rattlesnakes. Today, learn more about our nonvenomous snakes!

Upcoming Event:

Tune in for today’s Critter Chronicle video to meet Foxxy the Western Hognose Snake! PEEC staff member Ashleigh Lusher will introduce Foxxy via YouTube livestream from 11 – 11:15 AM and answer your questions in the live chat. Tune in here.

Blog Post:

Today on the blog, Garth Tietjen tells the story of a Sonoran gopher snake’s life on the Pajarito Plateau. Read his post here.


Snakes are reptiles, a special class of animals with scales. Find out more about what makes a reptile unique.

Then, collect nature items, or things that remind you of different animals, to compare the outer coverings (feathers, scales, and fur) of birds, reptiles, and mammals. Find ideas here.

Outdoor Challenge:

Foxxy is the Western Hognose Snake at the Los Alamos Nature Center. These snakes get their name from their upturned snouts. Learn about Foxxy in today’s Critter Chronicle! (Photo by Elena Giorgi)

Snakes are well known for their slithering! Learn more about the math and engineering behind slithering in this video from the National Science Foundation.

Then, go outside and observe animals in motion! If they move across a surface, do they hop or walk? If they walk, do they walk at a steady pace, or stop and go? Do they walk in a straight line, or zigzag? If they fly, do they flap their wings all the time, mostly soar, or flap-flap-flap-soar? If you’re lucky enough to spot a snake, does it lift part of its body off the ground as it moves?

Try to mimic some of the animal motions you see outside. Hop like a bird, slither like a snake, walk like an ant! Send us your observations by using the form below, emailing us, or commenting on social media!

Want to Learn More?

  • Why do snakes stick their tongues out? Because it helps them to smell! Snakes stick their tongues out to pick up chemical particles. When a snake flicks its tongue back into its mouth, it touches something called the Jacobson’s Organ, which helps it to smell. They use this to find meals and pick up pheromones from potential mates! Learn more about the Jacobson’s organ here.
  • Snakes shed their skins for a couple of reasons. One is to allow them to grow, and the other is to get rid of parasites. Learn more about why snakes shed their skins in this article from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
  • The New Mexico Herpetological Society has a list of snakes found in New Mexico.
  • The New Mexico State Extension Service has information for homeowners about snake biology and controlling snake habitat near your home.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our local reptiles and amphibians this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

On the final day of reptiles and amphibians week, we’ll learn more about amphibians — including local frogs! Check it out tomorrow!

A Snake’s Story

The Sonoran gopher snake is found throughout New Mexico. According to the New Mexico Herpetological Society, these snakes may be the longest snake found in the state. Large adults are usually about four feet long! (Photo by Tom Spinker)

By Garth Tietjen

Making an Entrance

As the spring Sun rises in the East, it beats down on an eastern-facing rocky talus slope. This is not just any day on the Pajarito Plateau — it’s the day the sun will warm up this talus slope enough to awaken our story’s snake. She has been brumating under a few large rocks for five cramped months. Moving slowly, the snake slithers out from the rocks and stretches out in the sun to her full length of four feet.

This female Sonoran gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer affinis) is covered with dust when she leaves her hiding spot. Immediately, she is struck with hunger pains. She must eat and drink very soon or she won’t be strong enough to mate. Luckily, here on the Pajarito Plateau, there are many rodents to eat. 

Jacobson’s Organ

There are two holes inside of her mouth, on the upper palate, called a Jacobson’s Organ. The snake places her tongue to these holes to receive taste and smell information. Within minutes, this Sonoran gopher snake has picked up the scent of a pack rat.

She uses her keen sense of smell to track the rat. As it moves, she picks up vibrations from the ground using the scales on her belly. She quickly locates the rat and eats it. 

With all of this activity, she needs to quench her thirst. She crawls towards some athletic fields below that have just finished their watering schedule and drinks some of the water that has pooled on the grass. After this big adventure, she crawls back to her home. 

Over the next few days, she continues to find meals of mice, rats, and a gopher. She starts to shed her skin.

Pheromone Trails

Our Sonoran gopher snake has found the food and water she needed after ending her brumation and is now ready to mate. As her skin sheds, she releases an invisible pheromone scent from her lower back. 

This release of pheromones is like a detailed highway map to the location of the female snake. When a mature male snake finds this trail, he will follow it and find her. The pheromones that she lays down while moving around can last many days. She crawls around the perimeter of the rocky talus slopes and awaits her suitors.

Selective Mating

Many male snakes find our snake’s pheromone pathway to her lair, wanting to mate with her. She now takes center-stage and watches all the potential mates compete for this privilege.

These wrestling matches can go on for hours! Finally, the strongest male wins by endurance or strength. The female Sonoran gopher snake lifts her tail in approval, and the male then mates with her.

Developing Eggs

The female Sonoran gopher snake will lay eggs in about one month. In the meantime, she will need to feed regularly on rodents in order to develop healthy eggs. She will also must find a suitable place that’s not too wet and not too dry to deposit her eggs. 

A baby Sonoran gopher snake in captivity. (Photo by Garth Tietjen)

The Life Cycle Continues

After this mother-to-be finds a suitable secretive burrow, she drops nine leathery elliptical eggs that are about one-and-a-half by three inches in size, which will hatch in about 60 – 75 days. After she drops her eggs she will curl up around the clutch and stick around for a day or two before moving on. Whether the female stays for protection or just to rest is unclear. After she leaves, her eggs continue to absorb moisture and grow. The eggs of the female look like they are going to explode and start heavy sweating at 75 days. 

Soon a tiny pin-like tooth comes out from within the egg, cutting multiple slits in the hard leathery shell. This tooth is on the end of the baby snake’s nose and will fall off in a day or two.

Then, the head of the magnificent baby Sonoran gopher snake pops out into a brave new world. And so goes the circle of life on the Pajarito Plateau.

Week 10, Day 3: Lizards

This baby whiptail lizard is probably either a New Mexico whiptail or a plateau striped whiptail! (Photo by Beth Cortright)

Welcome to Take It Outside! This week, we are getting to know our local reptiles and amphibians, collectively known as herptiles — or herps!

In today’s post, explore some of the lizards that live here in Northern New Mexico.

Blog Post:

Anthony Sena, Emeritus Professor at Northern New Mexico College, looked at some of the lizards you might find in Northern New Mexico and their unique features. In particular, he wrote about our state reptile, the New Mexico whiptail lizard. Read his blog post here.

Dr. Sena will be the next Featured Naturalist at Los Alamos Nature Center. Look for his exhibit shortly after the nature center reopens.


Lizards are experts in camouflage. Check out the many different shapes and colors of lizards here.

Then, color your own camouflaging lizard! Cut out a lizard shape, color it, and then place it outside in a spot to camouflage. Play a game of hide and seek with your craft! Can anyone in your family find the lizard?


Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Flash is one of the fence lizards that lives at the Los Alamos Nature Center. (Photo by Jennifer Macke)

Go on a lizard behavior scavenger hunt! Can you find a lizard …

  • Sunning itself on a rock?
  • Cooling off in the shade?
  • Doing head bobs or push-ups?
  • Trying to catch an insect to snack on?
  • Crawling up a wall or big rock?
  • Chasing another lizard?

Let us know what you observe!


Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

We have quite a few species of lizards on the Pajarito Plateau. Go outside and see how many different kinds of lizards you can find today. Depending on where you’re looking, you may be more likely to see some species than others. The species are listed below roughly according to how common they are, with the fence lizard being by far the most common species in Northern New Mexico.


Want to Learn More?

  • If you missed our last lizard-themed blog post by PEEC volunteer and biologist Jennifer Macke, check it out here to learn more about the lizard species you might find in Northern New Mexico.
  • In last week’s Critter Chronicles video, we featured Hazel, the Chihuahuan Spotted Whiptail Lizard, at the nature center. If you missed the livestream, you can watch that video here.
  • Be sure to check out PEEC’s online Reptiles and Amphibians Nature Guide to help you identify lizard species you find!
  • Explore how some lizards — like the New Mexico whiptail — are able to reproduce asexually in this Scientific American article.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our local reptiles and amphibians this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Tomorrow, we’ll learn about snakes!

Lizard Tales

A New Mexico whiptail lizard photographed in eastern New Mexico. This is probably an adult lizard. Juveniles commonly have blue-green tails! (Photo by Jerry Oldenettel)

By Anthony Sena, Emeritus Professor, Northern New Mexico College

I have noticed quite a few fence lizards, Sceloporus undulatus, in and around a small arroyo that runs through my yard and on the walls of our home. This is the most common lizard seen around homes and gardens in Northern New Mexico. Female fence lizards lay two clutches of eggs during the spring and summer seasons, so they and the males must spend significant time outside of their burrows during the day. Like most lizards they are wary and quick, but if a person is non-threatening or temporarily motionless they eventually relax and scurry about looking for food, mating partners, and, if they happen to be males, potential competitors.

When males encounter other males they perform an instinctive behavioral ritual of front limb push-ups and rapid head bobbing, which is interesting and amusing. It is also fun to watch them thermoregulate as they move from basking in open sunlight to plant covered shaded areas or to see them touch their snouts to water drops on freshly watered plants.

A fence lizard climbing on a wall in the author’s yard. (Photo by Anthony Sena)

They do not actively drink, preferring to let moisture creep along their scales into their mouth. It seems like we have been having a higher percentage of high winds this spring, which, in general, reduces sightings of lizards. Lizards are bothered by wind and one reason for this may be that it generally makes finding insects much more difficult. (I also dislike spring winds because of juniper pollen!)

The New Mexico whiptail lizard, Aspidoscelis neomexicanus, is the New Mexico state reptile. Its distribution in the state closely follows the Rio Grande from Española south into Texas, with a few sparse and localized populations far removed from the river in several southwest counties of New Mexico. In Northern New Mexico, the lizard prefers areas of low shrubs and grasslands in perpetually disturbed sandy habitat along the river.

The New Mexico whiptail is an all-female parthenogenetic species that was produced by an original mating of two related but distinct whiptail species. Because of this, New Mexico whiptails have one-half of all their chromosomes derived from one type of parent lizard and one-half from another species. In most cases, hybridizations of this type between vertebrate species result in sterility of the offspring, but sometimes surprising outcomes like parthenogenesis, or “virgin-birth,” occur, where all subsequent generations of offspring produced by the hybrid are genetically identical to the mother. 

Distribution of the New Mexico whiptail lizard (Aspidoscelis neomexicanus) in New Mexico. (Image by William G. Degenhardt, et al., from Amphibians & Reptiles of New Mexico)

In a couple of remarkable studies published in 1975, Dr. Orlando Cuellar from the University of Utah provided evidence that populations of New Mexico whiptails were over 99% identical from Rio Arriba to Socorro County. More recent and current studies continue to show very little genetic variability within populations of this species. Some parthenogenetic species have shown a fascinating pseudo-mating ritual where females alternate male-like behaviors at given times in the “mating” season. This behavior is providing interesting details on brain hormones and reproductive development, even in all-female parthenospecies like the New Mexico whiptail.

A similar species, the little striped whiptail, Aspidoscelis inornatus, that may be confused with the New Mexico whiptail, is more commonly seen in the Española Valley in areas further removed from the Rio Grande, but the little striped whiptail lacks the distinctive wavy line found on the mid-back of the New Mexican whiptail lizard. An interesting note is that the little striped whiptail is the known (by matching chromosomal size and banding characteristics) parental species of the New Mexico whiptail!

In my immediate vicinity, there are few areas that provide easy access to the riverbank (most are private or Pueblo land), and unfortunately I have not observed any New Mexico whiptails this spring.

If you observe a New Mexico whiptail or another lizard, we’d love to hear about it! Send your photo or story to takeitoutside@peecnature.org.

Week 10, Day 1: Rattlesnakes

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake seen in White Rock Canyon. Rattlesnakes play a necessary role in our ecosystem and human-snake encounters are rare. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

Welcome to Take It Outside! This week, we are getting to know our local reptiles and amphibians, collectively known as herptiles — or herps!

Today we are learning about rattlesnakes. These snakes often get a bad reputation because they are venomous, but they play a very important role in our food chains! Learn what to do if you encounter one, and how to keep yourself and the snake safe in today’s post.

If you haven’t already, please share your feedback on Take It Outside with us by filling out this evaluation form.

Blog Post:

Rattlesnakes are an important part of our ecosystem and both sightings and bites are rare. Learning about these snakes and what to do if you encounter one can help you to feel more prepared, confident, and comfortable when heading outdoors. Read today’s blog post from PEEC Marketing Manager Rachel Landman to learn what to do if you ever meet a rattlesnake.

Bullsnakes (left) have rounder heads and eyes than rattlesnakes (right). Rattlesnakes have triangular heads, cat-like eyes, and a rattle on the tip of their tail. (Photos by Jennifer Macke and J.N. Stuart)


Bullsnakes are often mistaken for rattlesnakes. Become an expert at identifying the differences. Bullsnakes are not venomous and are great at controlling rodent populations — they are a friend to gardeners and homeowners that want to keep mice and rats away from their yard and home. Observe the above pictures carefully, noticing the differences between a bullsnake and a rattlesnake. Visit this website to explore more differences.

Use a paper-plate, construction paper, or cardboard to cut out each snake’s shape. Using colored pencils, markers, or crayons, color in the details of each snake’s pattern. Keep these for reference when you encounter a snake in your yard. Find instructions here.


Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

Read today’s blog post and then go outside and practice what you would do if you saw a rattlesnake. Select a toy, ball, distinct rock, or another object that can be your snake and place it in your yard or along a nearby trail. Then, pretend you are out playing or hiking and practice how you’d respond!

This is a good way for kids to learn how to alert an adult of the snake’s presence. Role playing how you will stay calm, pause, and give the snake plenty of room while passing can help you get comfortable and feel prepared if you do ever encounter a real rattlesnake.

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Rattlesnakes, like other reptiles, are ectothermic, or cold-blooded. Their body temperature is regulated by environmental sources. Ectotherms can survive with less food than endotherms, or warm-blooded animals, but they can only be active within a comfortable range of temperatures. Rattlesnakes tend to be active between ambient temperatures of about 60°F and 90°F, which explains why we don’t see them in the winter. They also require shelter, usually underground, if the temperature gets too hot.

Rattlesnakes are more common in low-elevation parts of the Pajarito Plateau, like along the Rio Grande. In higher-elevation areas, like Los Alamos townsite, rattlesnakes are usually found in warm, south-facing areas.

Go outside and look for places that provide warm areas for basking and sheltered places to cool off. You might see other ectotherms, like lizards and non-venomous snakes, taking advantage of these areas, too. Let us know what you saw!

Want to Learn More?

  • Read about New Mexico’s “snake guy” and White Rock resident, Tom Wyant, who rescues and relocates snakes from people’s yards and homes in this profile from the Santa Fe New Mexican.
  • Visit the American International Rattlesnake Museum’s website to discover more about these amazing creatures and their important role in the ecosystems they live in. This museum is located in Albuquerque, so you can visit them when they are able to re-open to the public. Be sure to tune in for our virtual Summer Family Evening with them later this summer! Details are coming soon.
  • Local writer Kyle Dickman was bitten by a rattlesnake while visiting Yosemite National Park. He spoke about his experience last summer in a presentation at the Los Alamos Nature Center. You can read his account of this experience in his Outside Magazine article or listen to the podcast interview he gave to learn more about his bite and recovery. This is a fascinating story, but be warned that his account is quite graphic and may not be appropriate for all audiences.
  • The New Mexico Wildlife Center has produced some educational videos about snakes. Hear a rattlesnake rattle, and meet a bullsnake and a hognose snake on their site.
  • Snakes play an important part in the ecosystems of New Mexico. Learn about some ways snakes can be beneficial to humans here.
  • If you find a snake in your yard and don’t want it there, don’t kill it or try to harm it. There are groups of volunteers who can safely relocate the snake for you. In Los Alamos and White Rock, you can call the non-emergency police dispatch line at (505) 662-8222 to be connected with volunteers. In other places in Northern New Mexico, you can call the New Mexico Wildlife Center at (505) 753-9505.

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our local reptiles and amphibians this week! We’d love to see your photos, too. Please send them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or share them on Facebook or Instagram with the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Join us tomorrow to learn about the Jemez Mountain Salamander!

Staying Safe Around Rattlesnakes

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake photographed along the Rio Grande. Notice the snake’s triangular head and cat-like eyes. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

By Rachel Landman

Rattlesnakes are a natural and important part of our ecosystem. They are mesopredators, meaning that they are both predator and prey, and fill an important niche in the food web! They help keep our rodent and small mammal populations in check, and in turn are preyed upon by roadrunners, hawks, other snakes, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes. We have ten species of rattlesnake in New Mexico, including two that are found on the Pajarito Plateau.

Familiarizing yourself with these snakes, and learning what to do if you encounter one, can keep you, your family, and our snake populations safe. Leaving the snake be, giving it room, and letting it move along is the best course of action.

Learn to Identify Rattlesnakes:

Becoming familiar with the appearance of rattlesnakes is a great first step. Local wildlife is fun to learn about and this familiarity can help you feel more confident and safe outdoors. Some non-venomous snakes can look a lot like rattlesnakes and will even mimic their behavior as a defense mechanism.

Rattlesnakes have a triangle-shaped head and cat-like eyes, whereas non-venomous bullsnakes usually have more rounded heads and pupils. Most notably, a rattlesnake will have a blunt rattle at the tip of its tail, and a bullsnake has a long, tapered tail. Bullsnakes can coil their bodies tightly and strike to mimic a rattlesnake and ward off predators, and they might even hiss or shake to make a rattling sound, but it is all bark: bullsnakes aren’t venomous.

Reducing Risk:

Fortunately, we can take a few simple precautions to minimize the chance of a negative encounter with a rattlesnake.

  • Be aware of your surroundings. Look around and ahead of you while out hiking or playing in your yard. Snakes sometimes lay in the sun on rocks or rest in the shade. Look at where you are putting your hands and feet as you hike. At home, you might find snakes in your garden amongst plants or in a wood pile. Wear gloves and inspect the area before placing your hands.
  • Consider trails and timing. Rattlesnakes are most active in the spring and summer months when the weather warms up. In Los Alamos County, they’re usually seen in White Rock Canyon and some hikers choose to avoid these trails during this time of year. Snakes are less common at higher elevations. Explore the Valles Caldera, Cañada Bonita, or trails on Pajarito Mountain if you’d like to avoid snake habitat in the warmer months.
  • Stay alert. Rattlesnakes are sometimes called the gentleman’s viper because they usually give a warning before striking. Hike without headphones so you can hear what’s going on around you. Listen to what a rattle sounds like in this video from our friends at the New Mexico Wildlife Center.
  • Wear appropriate clothing. When out hiking, wearing hiking boots, long socks, and long pants is a good idea. This attire protects you from rolled ankles, sunburn, and scratches from plants, but if a rattlesnake does bite you, having a layer between a snake’s fangs and your skin can interfere with the injection of venom.
  • Keep an eye on kids and pets. Be aware of what your kids and pets are doing on the trail or in the yard. Teach your kids to look for snakes before putting their hands under rocks, logs, or brush; to not approach or touch snakes; and to get an adult if they encounter one.

What To Do If You See a Rattlesnake:

If you see a rattlesnake, stop and give it space and time to move off the trail. (Photo by Craig Martin)

If you notice a snake ahead of you while hiking, stop and give it time to move off the trail. You can try stomping your feet in place if it doesn’t move. Snakes have sensitive scales on their bellies to help them feel vibrations. Knowing that oncoming traffic is on its way might encourage the snake to move off the trail. When it does, give it plenty of space and safely travel around it.

Move away slowly if you are close to a snake when you first notice it. Give the snake room to get away from you and avoid cornering it — the snake doesn’t want to be near you either!

Once you’ve passed the snake safely, tell other trail users you meet about the snake’s whereabouts. That way they can be aware and stay safe, too! You can let them know how to move around it safely, like you did, so they don’t cause the snake or themselves any harm.

If A Rattlesnake Bites You:

We aren’t medical professionals here at PEEC, and encourage you to seek professional help in the event of a snake bite. Go to the hospital or call 911 or Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 and follow their advice. If you are hiking and don’t have cellphone service, have someone in your group or a fellow trail user move to a place where they can get service and call.

The New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center created this helpful brochure on our state’s venomous snakes to help residents identify them and know how to respond if they are ever bitten. If you’d like, you can print it out and keep it in your hiking pack or first aid kit!

Always Remember:

If you do meet a rattlesnake on the trail, give it a wide berth for its protection and yours, but take a minute to appreciate the rattlesnake’s important position in our ecosystem’s food web. It’s hard to be both a predator and prey species, and rattlesnakes do an impressive job of filling this necessary role in the food chain. Snakes keep small mammal populations in check, help control diseases that are carried by rodents, and may even play an important role in dispersing plant seeds!

Rattlesnake encounters are rare, while it’s good to know how to behave if you see one, please don’t let a fear of snakes or other wildlife stop you from getting outside and exploring nature!