Eek! A Snake! – Which One?

Scottsdale AZ – Our reptile friends are apparently out for the season.  We were out hunting for interesting rocks with our rock-hounding niece Emily and inadvertently came upon a long snake stretched out across our path.  Our first reaction was to stop, back away and mentally run through our internal rattlesnake identification checklist. Fortunately, this long, limber snake had a pointy head and tail, as well as round pupils.  Here in the west, it is commonly known as a Gopher Snake, but is closely related to and often called a Bull Snake.

Gopher Snake

Due to their length, coloring and markings, this non-poisonous snake is often mistaken for a Rattlesnake. Gopher Snakes and Rattlesnakes both help keep rodent populations under control and are essential for the health of the desert eco-system. As a desert dweller, it is important to learn the differences between a venomous Rattlesnake and a non-venomous Gopher Snake.  One is helpful in your outdoor landscape, and the other is better suited to the open desert.

(c)SPeganyGopherSnake
This non-venomous gopher snake may remind you of a rattlesnake, but has very different physical characteristics and is a “good” snake to have around.
SPegany2020Rattler2
Western diamondback rattlesnakes are common in the desert, known for their diamond shaped markings, striped tail and rattles made of keratin, the same material that your fingernails are made of.
Learn to identify snakes and other wild creatures in your environment.  They each have an important role to play, so learning as much as you can about their contributions only enhances any encounters with them. 

Rattlesnakes vs Gopher Snakes

Head
Rattlesnakes have triangular heads, 
with facial heat sensing pits that look like nostrils.
Gopher Snakes have narrow, rounded heads, 
although if threatened, they can flatten their heads to mimic a Rattlesnake.

Eye
Rattlesnakes have vertical, slit pupils, like a cat.
Like most non-venomous snakes in the US, 
Gopher Snakes have rounded pupils

Tail
Rattlesnakes have an ornate cluster of keratin rattles on the tail which grows by one ring every time an old skin is shed. 
Young rattlers do not have a "rattle" until they shed.
Gopher Snakes have a pointy tail, but because they mimic rattlers, it may be hard to see their tail if they are vigorously shaking it.

Body
Rattlesnakes are generally bulkier 
with a thick middle that tapers on both ends.
Gopher Snakes can grow much longer than Rattlesnakes, up to 8 feet, whereas Rattlers usually top out at about 4 feet. 
Gopher snakes are also slimmer and more limber looking than Rattlers.
Gopher Snake Photo by Emily R
Diamondback Rattlesnake

There are over 50 species of snakes native to Arizona, including 13 unique varieties of rattlesnake, which is more than any other state. Venomous and non-venomous, elusive and aggressive, dull and glossy, colorful and camouflaged, Arizona has a plethora of snakes and other reptiles to see along the trails.

No matter what kind of snake you encounter in your tracking adventures, always leave them alone. Even the non-venomous Gopher Snake can strike with a painful bite. However, most snakes are content to slip away without an encounter and will only bite if provoked or need to defend themselves.   These amazingly designed creatures are a treat to see in their native habitat if we use caution and give them plenty of space.  When we track wonder in the wild, it is up to us to diligently watch where we place our feet and hands.

As you move across the trails this spring and summer, remember to track wild wonder with great awe, but also great caution.

WT LogoCultivate Wonder… Discover Design

(c) SPegany
Now faith is a well-grounded assurance of that for which we hope, and a conviction of the reality of things which we do not see. Hebrews 11:1

References and Resources

  1. Reptiles of Arizona
  2. whatsnakeisthat.com
  3. Live Science – Gopher Snake Facts
  4. Sciencing – How to Identify Baby Rattlesnakes
  5. Arizona Game and Fish – Rattlesnakes

Images: Emily R and SPegany

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