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All about the herpetological world.

The Rattlesnake Lady: Rattling your views on snakes

Posted by Miqe on April 12, 2007

By John Griffith /Special for The Willits News

Few things immortalize the Wild West more than cowboys, cow drives, and rattlesnakes. But while cowboys still enjoy popularity in rodeos and cigarette advertisements, and cows have become popular worldwide, rattlesnakes have been well, they’ve been chopped in half with shovels.

Snakes have had a bad reputation in western cultures since Genesis. Thanks to science, we’re starting to realize that snakes aren’t really mindless muscles that slither around with hypnotizing eyes, skin-piercing fangs, and the evil intent of ambushing a picnicking family. Still, Katie Colbert, the Rattlesnake Lady, would advise you to watch where you set your cooler.

Click photo to enlarge


On Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m., Katie Colbert will present a slideshow on America’s most misunderstood and unappreciated reptile at the Ukiah Civic Center. Colbert is a wildlife biologist with the Sunol-Ohlone Wilderness Region of the East Bay Regional Parks. The event, sponsored by Peregrine Audubon Society, is free to the public, though donations are happily accepted.

Colbert describes the rattlesnakes’ worldview as “six inches high and crisscrossed with the scent trails of rodents.” For the last nine years, she has studied them on their own turf. She stalks them with the help of radio-tracking technology and has made some amazing discoveries. She has followed the same snake back to the same rock-covered den where he has wintered for five years in a row. She’s even discovered two female rattlesnakes-possibly sisters-that prefer to spend their time together.

All of this may sound way too endearing for something that has severe, unblinking eyes (snakes don’t have eyelids) and a mouth full of venom. It gets even more interesting. Rattlesnakes and their prey have co-evolved. Poisonous fangs gave rattlesnakes a major advantage over rodents. With one quick bite rattlesnakes could coil up, watch their prey die, and then eat the victim after it stopped struggling. Yet one of their favorite menu items declared an arms race and has evolved too. Adult ground squirrels are no longer affected by the snakes’ venom. They have become immune.

While some could claim that ground squirrels have benefited from humans’ vast, rowed forests of fruit-bearing trees (orchards), no one could make the same statement for rattlesnakes. We have taken over their habitat and do not allow them to live near us. Even when we encounter them in the wilderness we often kill them. Katie says that those nature lovers who think they are sparing a snake’s life by moving it miles away to a “safer place” are giving that snake a death sentence as well. It takes a long time for a rattlesnake to become acquainted with every rodent trail, lizard hangout, and good hiding place. When it is moved out of its territory, it often exhausts all of its precious energy reserves trying to adapt to the new location-and dies.

The best way to co-exist with rattlesnakes is to understand them. Now we have a rare opportunity to do just that. Katie Colbert is sure to inspire you to think more deeply the next time you hear that hissing rattling sound that sends adrenaline shooting through the veins of even the toughest outdoorsman. She encourages you to come to her presentation with an open mind. Her co-presenter would appreciate it if you left your shovels at home for he is a rattlesnake.

From The Willits News

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