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!

Week 3, Day 5: Native Reptiles & Amphibians

The collared lizard is one of the larger lizards found on the Pajarito Plateau. They can be quite colorful! (Photo by Jonathan Creel)

Today we are exploring some of Northern New Mexico’s native reptiles and amphibians. Thanks for joining us for another week of Take It Outside! Next week, we’ll explore outdoor adventures.

We hope you continue to get outside this weekend! Check out PEEC’s tips on getting outdoors and using our trails during COVID-19.

Blog Post:

Our local lizards are starting to emerge from their winter homes! Biologist and PEEC board member Jennifer Macke shares some tips on how you can become an instant expert on our lizard populations today on the blog. Check out her post here.

Craft:

Build a lizard lounge for your yard! If you enjoy seeing lizards roaming your yard and garden, consider adding some features that will help attract them to your yard.

Find a quiet, but sunny spot in your yard for your lizard lounge and start collecting materials! Try to gather the following:

  • Large rocks that lizards can sun themselves on.
  • Sticks or rocks of different sizes to build a pile with. Lizards love to hide in small nooks and crannies.
  • Mulch, such as leaf litter or bark, that skinks can hide beneath. This will also attract insects — a lizard’s favorite food!
  • A hidden water bowl that your lizard friends can drink from.

Get creative with your lizard lounge and make a sign for it, if you’d like! We’d love to see what you come up with! Share your pictures with us by emailing them to takeitoutside@peecnature.org or tagging us on Facebook or Instagram. You can also use the hashtag #peectakeitoutside.

Find more ideas here. We also love this guide for a lizard friendly garden from New Zealand. The lizards and plants mentioned may not exist here, but the basic ideas are still the same!

Outdoor Challenge (Beginner):

One of our educators found this juvenile many-lined skink during a hike on a PEEC field trip! (Photo by Jessica Miller)

Lizards are ectotherms, or cold-blooded animals. This means that they need to get heat from their surroundings. Use your hand to feel rocks and other surfaces in different outdoor areas. Can you feel which areas are warmest? If you were a lizard, these would be areas you would use to bask to warm up your body. Spend a few minutes basking in the sun like a lizard!

Did you know that the Spanish name for lizard, lagartija, also means a pushup, as in the exercise? Lizards do pushups to show off their strength, possibly to attract mates or scare off rivals. Do a few lagartijas yourself to show your strength!

Outdoor Challenge (Advanced):

Look for lizards today! For best luck, look on south-facing rocks on mesa tops or in sunny areas in the Rio Grande Valley. Lizards are often well camouflaged, so you’ll have to look closely.

Fence lizards are the most abundant lizard in our area, and the one you’re most likely to see in early spring. They can have a variety of colors and patterns, depending on the lizard’s age and genetic variations. How many different patterns of fence lizards can you spot today? Bring your nature journal and some pencils and sketch the patterns of a lizard you see!

Other Resources:

Share Your Experience:

Tell us what you learn about our four-footed friends 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.

Next week’s content will be all about outdoor adventures! We’ll be back on Monday, April 6. Have a good weekend!

Lizards Basking in Spring

A juvenile fence lizard basks on some gravel. (Photo by Jennifer Macke)

By Jennifer Macke

One of the hallmarks of springtime is the emergence of reptiles from their winter inactivity. Lizards and snakes spend the winter underground, burying themselves below the frost line. As the weather gets warmer, you will begin to see them out and about, at first just during the warmest part of the day. You may see them basking to warm up in the morning, and actively hunting prey in the early afternoon. If the evenings are still cold, they will retreat back underground at night.

First to Emerge

Since emergence depends on temperature, the first places you are likely to see lizards are in warm, sun-soaked sites. Look for them in the Rio Grande valley, and on warm mesa-tops. They emerge later in the mountains.

Emergence varies by species. The first species of lizard you are likely to see are fence lizards. This species is highly adaptable to a wide range of temperatures, and are quite tolerant of cool-but-sunny spring days. Some other species, such as the whiptails, require a higher temperature. Whiptails will emerge later, and have shorter periods of activity only in the warmest part of spring days.

Soaking in the Sun

Hazel, one of the critters at the nature center, is a Chihuahuan spotted whiptail lizard. (Photo by Jennifer Macke)

Basking in the sun serves two essential purposes for lizards: heat and vitamin D. Reptiles produce very little of their own body heat, and are almost entirely dependent on heat from their environment. Unlike us, they have a range of body temperatures in which they can function. Most reptiles can only digest food above a certain temperature, so they bask in order to be warm enough to digest their food.

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for all vertebrate species, and sunshine is the major source for most lizards. Their diet of insects doesn’t provide enough vitamin D, so they depend on basking to provide it. In fact, scientific studies have shown that lizards bask longer when their bodies are deficient in vitamin D.

Pro Tip: Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, and thus helps build strong bones, both in humans and lizards.

Be an Instant Expert

To be a bird expert, you will need to learn more than 100 species, but being a lizard expert is easy. We have only about a dozen species in the area, and there are just two types that vastly predominate: the fence lizard and a group of related species that we will lump together as the whiptails. If you learn to tell the difference between the fence lizard and the whiptails, you can easily identify 90% of the lizards you see, and everyone will think you’re a pro!

Pro Tip: You can distinguish between the fence lizard and the whiptails on the basis of their tail length.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences between fence lizards and whiptails.

Eastern fence lizards are the first lizards to emerge in the spring. (Photo by Jennifer Macke)

Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus)

Fence lizards have blue patches on their chin and belly, giving them the common name “Blue-belly.” (Photo by Jennifer Macke)

The first lizards to emerge in spring are also the most common: the fence lizard. This lizard goes by several different common names, including Swift, Prairie Lizard, and Blue-belly. Some individuals, especially juveniles, have a herringbone-like pattern of dark brown markings on a light brown body. Some adults also have this pattern, or their markings may fade to a uniform gray-brown.

Fence lizards have blue patches on their chin and belly, giving them the common name Blue-belly. These patches are larger and more obvious in males than in females. In spring, you may see a male Fence lizard doing “push-ups” in order to display his blue belly to a nearby female.

The Whiptail Lizard Family (Aspidoscelis spp.)

A plateau striped whiptail lizard, one of five whiptail species that occur in our area. (Photo by Selvi Viswanathan)

The whiptails are a group of related species named for their long, thin tails. We have five whiptail species that occur in our area, but even experts have difficulty distinguishing some of the species at a glance. The whiptails require very warm temperatures to be active, and thus their emergence comes later in spring.

Whiptails are very fast-moving. They often display jerky start-stop movements, which can create a unique sound when they move through leaf litter or dry grass.

Most whiptails have “racing stripes” running the length of their body. Like fence lizards, the whiptails have courtship rituals in springtime, so spend some time watching their antics.

Pro Tip: Listen for lizards moving under bushes.

Other Lizard Species

A horned lizard in the Jemez Mountains. (Photo by Beth Cortright)

Some of the less-common lizards in the local area include the tree lizard, the horned lizard (also known as horny toads), the many-lined skink, and the collared lizard. For additional information and photos, check out PEEC’s online Reptile Guide.

Now that you are an instant expert, see if you can observe some basking lizards and watch their interesting behaviors this spring!