Scott Gibson stands in the sand in front of an impressive red rock spire: you can see his footprints through the sand.
Scott Gibbson

There are lots of myths and misinformation surrounding rattlesnakes and snakes in general.  We talk with Scott Gibson, Wildlife Conservation Biologist for the Southeastern Region with the Utah Division of Wildlife about his research on and interest in rattlesnakes. Scott sets the record straight on many of the common falsehoods about rattlesnakes and talks about where you may (or may not) encounter the rattler

Science Moab: How do you gather data on rattlesnakes?

Gibson: There are different ways that we can do it. If they’re general surveys, we can use techniques to intercept snakes on the landscape and herd them into these passive traps called funnel traps. We can check those traps at least once a day and look at what’s been caught. You can do general visual surveys where you actually inspect the landscape. At certain times of the year, certain ways of doing things are better than others. Night driving can be very effective, where you find remote paved roads in the summertime. Snakes become nocturnal during those really intense heat periods and tend to warm up on the roads at night. We get the most ecological information about snakes using transmitters. If we are able to catch snakes, transmitters can be surgically implanted in snakes and then tracked. That’s one of the best ways to study snakes.

Science Moab: What rattlesnakes do we have in southeastern Utah? Where do they live?

Gibson: The two species we know are in the southeastern region are the prairie rattlesnake and the Western rattlesnake. The Western rattlesnake that we have in southeastern Utah is a subspecies called the faded rattlesnake. It’s very short and very faded in color. In the Upper Colorado Plateau area, like around Price, Grand Junction, and down towards Moab, that’s probably the most common one. We tend to get prairie rattlesnakes further southeast in the state. So as you move down towards southern Moab, Monticello, and Blanding, that’s the species that predominates. Pretty much any place you are in Utah, you’re in rattlesnake country. Rattlesnakes can be found at high elevations. I found faded rattlesnakes as high as 9000 feet and all the way down to the bottom of the Little Grand Canyon in the San Rafael Swell. Same thing with prairie rattlesnakes: I’ve seen them in sagebrush country and higher up on the flanks of the La Sals. There’s a lot of variability in where these snakes can be found. There are some commonalities: these snakes do need to find a suitable place to den in the winter, so they need rocky places. But any place in Moab is rattlesnake country, all the way up into the elevation.

Science Moab: Where are people most likely to encounter rattlers, and are there ways to minimize those?

Gibson: A lot of encounters take place along trails, especially near water sources. Some of the streamside areas tend to be quite rich in rattlesnake abundance. Also any type of rocky habitat like hillsides with a lot of cracks and fissures. Those are really the places where we tend to see a lot of snakes. As far as minimizing encounters, short of not recreating outside, it’s difficult to say what to do. Fortunately, rattlesnake encounters still are not ultra-common and encounters that result in bites are even rarer. Keeping pets on leashes is a big one: pets are often the victims of bites because they tend to discover rattlesnakes. Being vigilant, not putting your hands and feet in places that you can’t see, when it’s hot. 

Science Moab: Are there any myths about rattlesnakes you’d like to debunk?

Gibson: One of the things I hear a lot is that young rattlesnakes are more dangerous than adults. The theory behind that is young rattlesnakes can’t control their venom whereas adults can: not true! The vast majority of bad bites have come from larger rattlesnakes. The other one I hear a lot is that rattlesnakes add a rattle every year, so you can count the rattles and tell how old a rattlesnake is, which is not true. Every time they shed their skin, they add a new rattle segment. They can shed several times in a year when they’re young. When they get older, they may shed once a year or once every other year as they’re growing slower. So you can’t really tell an age too much by that. 

The other thing that we should get out there is what to do if you are bitten. Extractor kits, suction devices that are supposed to suck out venom if you’re bitten: they’ve actually shown that that’s not effective and can cause damage. There’s going to be swelling associated with bites, so removing tight clothing in an area where you’re bitten is a good preventative measure to decrease the chances of tissue damage. Remaining calm and using a cell phone to call 911 as quickly as you can and seeking medical attention is the best thing you can do for rattlesnake bites. Any of the stuff you can buy, or any of the other myths you’ve heard about, like sucking the venom out or applying tourniquets, are not good.

Science Moab is a nonprofit dedicated to engaging community members and visitors with the science happening in Southeast Utah and the Colorado Plateau. To learn more and listen to the rest of this interview, visit www.sciencemoab.org/radio.