By Nanci Dixon
Camping in the Southwest? Hiking? Even if you’re just going for a leisurely stroll around the campground you’ll want to watch out for the biting, stinging creatures that call the American Southwest home. If they feel threatened, they’ll defend themselves.
We spend the winters in a regional park in the Arizona desert and I have learned a lot about snakes, scorpions and tarantulas. Here are a few things to note about each:
1. Don’t go off-trail. It is easy to get lost; the desert surface is delicate; and snakes, scorpions and other biting creatures can be hiding under rocks and brush where you can’t see them. The rattlesnake in the photo below was slithering through our campsite.
2. Always watch where you are walking – in front and to the side. Don’t back up to take that stellar photo without looking behind you first. A ranger in Saguaro National Park told me that a young man had backed up for a photo and stepped on a rattlesnake, with severe results.
3. Rattlesnakes hunt at night so you must be extra vigilant if you’re out walking then. Interestingly, they are not as likely to be out on a full moon because their prey can see them! Snakes don’t hear – they feel vibrations and usually consider you too big a predator.
4. Rattlesnakes are not highly aggressive, so back away slowly if you encounter one. Give them a wide berth. A snake can strike up to a distance of half their length. When my husband encountered a coiled snake, rattling, he ran about two blocks before he tried to take a photo. Can’t see a thing in the photo, no matter how much I try to enlarge it!
5. Their rattle is amazingly loud and the rattle is your final warning. Don’t wear headphones or earbuds. In areas heavily inundated with snakes, snake shields and gaiters are available. They might look a bit silly, but if you get attacked, you’ll sure be glad you were wearing them.
6. If bitten, call 911 and get medical attention immediately. Keep as still as possible and keep the area that was bitten below your heart to reduce the venom getting to your heart. Remove jewelry and any tight clothing by the bite area before swelling starts. Do not try to suck out the venom. Let the wound bleed to let out more of the venom. Stay as calm as possible.
7. If you come upon a dead rattlesnake, it is still venomous. A recently killed one still has a muscle that can inject venom, even if decapitated.
8. Snakes semi-hibernate in cooler temperatures. We know that in the spring when the temps start to get to 80 degrees in the day and 70s at night, the rattlesnakes will come out and they will be hungry. Note that baby snakes are born with as much lethal venom as an adult but do not have warning rattles. Be even more aware in the spring and summer.
1. Be careful picking up rocks or sticks. Scorpions commonly hide under rocks, branches, brush and logs. They can also climb and can be found on trees and rock walls. Wear gloves if moving rocks or logs, and double-check for scorpions. I once got a painful sting when I was sweeping. A scorpion got stuck on the broom and the broom brushed against my arm. It hurt for almost a month.
2. Because scorpions can climb they are sometimes found in RVs and homes in dark closets, sinks and bathtubs. Move them out with care.
3. Scorpions come out at night to hunt. They eat insects and sometimes even other scorpions. Closed-toed shoes are recommended when walking at night. Do not leave shoes outside for the night. Tent camping? Shake out shoes, sleeping bags and other items they can crawl into and hide in.
4. Want to go scorpion sighting? They glow green under black lights. You can find small UV flashlights on Amazon. This can be a fun activity but, of course, be careful!
5. The smaller the scorpion, the worse the sting. One of the smallest, the Bark Scorpion, is venomous and considered life-threatening. Beware.
Tarantulas are the stuff of nightmares and horror flicks, but these fuzzy arachnids are basically harmless to humans. When we encountered one on the road I jumped out of the truck to take a picture from a safe distance. The nature center ranger told me I could have put my hand down and it would have gently crawled over. No thanks!
1. If a tarantula rears up on its hind legs, move! It is ready to bite with its front pinchers when feeling threatened.
2. To humans the venom of a tarantula is very weak; however, the bite is painful and feels similar to a bee sting.
3. The venom is highly toxic to dogs and cats, though, and they will need immediate medical attention if bitten.
The desert is an amazing place to visit, live and hike. With a little awareness and respect to the critters that make it their home, it can be your home too, for a day, a season, or years.