Goodness snakes alive!

By Michael Raffey


Just in time for late summer reading is the Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California, from the California Natural History series printed by the University of California Press.

Because it’s warm and one of the months with the most fire danger, I still count September as late summer.

What I know about reptiles is that our property is riddled with lizards. They climb on our sliding glass doors and up the side of the stucco. Ever since our last cat bit the dust the lizards have multiplied.

When I’m whacking weeds or tromping around the property I always wear high-top leather boots and jeans. I haven’t seen a rattler. In fact, I’m more alert to meat bees. I look ahead carefully at every gopher hole to make sure it’s not a meat bee nest. They sting when protecting their nest, I discovered when I went to fill back a hole I found on the side of my road once.

The Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California is written by Robert C. Stebbins and Samuel M. McGinnis. The authors wrote, “Since 1960 there have only been a few documented fatal pit viper bites per year, and most of these by the western diamond-backed rattlesnake … However, recent statistics on annual deaths from other sources greatly overshadow this number. In just one category of venomous animals, bee and wasp stings kill about 50 people each year, and fire ant bites average 100 annual deaths … In 1995 lightning killed 89 people and heat related deaths in 2006 numbered more than 500.”

Well, they can pooh-pooh rattlesnakes as not deadly, but I sure wouldn’t want to have a close encounter of the viperous kind. Before we got concrete steps to our front door we had wooden ones. When our daughter was just a tyke my wife was carrying her out the front door for a doctor visit when she heard this rattling down under the foot of the stairs. The snake had been lying in our neighbor’s property down the hill, but she was a live-and-let-live person, so the big snake made its way up the hill to our house. My wife called the Diamond Springs Fire Department and then-Chief Frank Cunha came out with a snake-catching pole and killed it. He buried the head and took the rest back to the firehouse to barbecue. We were glad to make the donation.

I have trouble distinguishing gopher snakes from rattle snakes and the book notes that is a common error. It’s compounded by the gopher snake being able to shake its tail and if it does that on dry leaves, it will sound like a rattlesnake.

King snakes, found throughout California, are much more obviously not rattle snakes. Once a big one was lying across the paved path in my back yard when I asked a plumber to replace an automatic valve on my irrigation system at the back of my house. He didn’t want to walk by the snake. The king snake wasn’t moving. I just told hm to step over it like I did, that it wasn’t poisonous.

My most peculiar encounter with king snakes was when my son and I were digging out a footing to pour some concrete for a metal sculpture. As we dug down out popped two small kings snakes, which skittered away. It was quite a surprise since there weren’t any gopher holes there and we had dug down quite a bit before finding them.

California is noted for its diversity of landscape. It stands to reason it has a pretty diverse population of amphibians and reptiles.

“However, geographic variability and extremes in California may well exceed those of any other state or province,” the authors wrote.

“More than 80 percent of the state’s 44 lizard species occur in the Mojave and Colorado deserts, but only two of its 42 salamanders are found there. This distribution is sharply reversed in the cool streams and moist forests of northern coastal California, which is home to 50 percent of California salamander species but only five (15 percent) of its lizard species,” the authors wrote.

And as for our own area, the foothills and Sierra, “Seventy percent of California’s 160 (44 percent) nonmarine reptile and amphibian species occur within or immediately adjacent to the Sierra Nevada geographic range.”

Besides the snakes mentioned above and the rubber boa, the lizards most commonly seen around these parts are the western fence lizard, the sagebrush lizard and the northern alligator lizard. Many lizard species have a third eye on top of their heads, but it lacks an iris to adjust for light changes. It primarily serves get them to come in out of the rain.

The most common frogs are the chorus frogs that fill my fields and sound like 1,000 until the grass turns brown. Occasionally a blue heron will land in our field to do some frog gigging. Red legged frogs, more common on the coast, supposedly include the foothills in the range, but bullfrogs, imported in 1905, have pushed out red-legged frogs from wetland habitats. Another deleterious import of the 1940s is the African clawed frog, which is primarily aquatic. In 1998 it was identified as the carrier of a fungal disease that “destroys the ability of frog skin to function as a respiratory or water absorption organ.” The bullfrog also spreads a fungus damaging to the red-legged frog.

The chorus frog is also a fungus carrier. In March it was announced that a San Francisco State University graduate student working with a professor who has been studying the Sierra’s yellow-legged frogs discovered the fungus destroying the yellow-legged frog came from the chorus frogs.

It’s a never-ending battle for survival among frog species.

One final note: My 95-year-old mother, a retired public health nurse, amuses nurses and doctors by saying horse serum when asked whether she is allergic to any medications. Horse serum-based inoculations are probably not even mentioned in current medical training.

But the authors of the Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles had this to say about snake bite antivenom: “The replacement of horse-derived antivenom with bovine-based serum in the United States in 2000 represents a major advance in snakebite treatment, in that the former occasionally caused an allergic reaction that was often more severe than the trauma produced by the venom.”

The paperback book is $29.95, available from UC Press.


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