Snakes on the Trail

By John F. Taylor

Snakes of the Past and Today

Ever since humans have roamed the planet we have been quick to identify those creatures which might pose a danger to us. Some were obvious predators of humans such as large carnivores (cats, dogs, hyenas) and maybe even ancient eagles –– fossil evidence shows that small early hominins were possibly dined upon by these large raptors. Other species that posed a threat were probably large snakes. Not so much the ones we are familiar with today, such as large constrictors like Burmese pythons (Python molurus) or anacondas (Eunectes murinus) These large predators were most likely easy to identify, but not so obvious were the venomous rattlesnakes which also shared the planet with our hominin ancestors.

Today, with the explosive population growth of the human species, coupled with the extensive urbanization of once-wild areas, we have pushed many animals not only into zoos and other such facilities in order to prevent their potential extinction (sometimes unsuccessfully so), but we have also designated areas such as state parks where animals are allowed to ‘roam’ free as they would if we had never appeared. Needless to say, these areas also come with the many paved roads and trails that are maintained for our recreational pleasure --such pleasures usually outweigh the ecological needs of many wild animal species today.

Venomous Snakes

Photo © Austin P. Taylor

While venomous snake bites occur 7-8,000 times per year in the U.S., of those there are only 5-6 fatalities per year. That being said, the mass media plays up envenomations as if snakes are literally waiting around every corner for us when we leave our homes. But this is absolutely not the case. Several studies# have shown that there is approximately 1 rattlesnake per football field-sized area of terrain where they are known to occur. Thus, unless you’re specifically looking for them, the likelihood of encountering this type of viper is extremely rare. That being said, rattlesnake bites are a potential hazard, but certainly not one that should keep you from getting outdoors. Rattlesnakes avoid humans in many ways, the first line of defense is the cryptic coloration and pattern breaking up the snakes outline when it’s viewed against the substrates in a natural setting. The next line of defense comes from their familiar namesake: the rattle on the tail-tip which they vibrate loudly when threatened.

Rattlesnake Encounter

If you’re keenly aware of your environment when out hiking (and very lucky!) you may indeed spot a rattlesnake. If this happens, I would implore you to give the snake a wide berth, and if this is not possible then turn around and walk back the way you came. Don’t ever harass the snake or attempt to make it move off from its spot on the trail-- it’s simply not worth the risk. Try and take photographs from a safe distance if at all possible, and then share the story with family and friends once you get back. You and the snake will both live happier lives for the encounter.

Read John's Blog Post: Snake Venom Treatment

About John F. Taylor
John F. Taylor is the former Founder of Southern California Wildlife, and not only is he an amateur herpetologist, but also an expert on San Diego-based reptiles and their habitat. Additionally, he has extensive experience with exotic species from all over the world. He has worked within the pet industry for over a decade and served as Editor for the San Diego Herpetological Society. He's personally handled well over 200 various species. His articles appear in multiple media environments; most recently several of his articles have appeared within the industry-respected Reptilia Magazine, a renowned European publication and Reptile Magazine as well as Reptiles and Reptiles USA published by Bow Tie publications.

He's also published “Captive Care of Uromastyx” through T.F.H. This summer will see the launch of new book series on the captive care of reptiles and insect pets. To see his most current work you can go to "My main goal is to educate people living in small environments, primarily apartments, on the unique challenges of keeping a reptile or insect. There’s an alarming lack of actionable data on this topic and a lack of information or an abundance of misinformation is impacting the quality of life for reptiles and insects everywhere."