Myths About the Mojave Rattler Scares Us to Hysteria
By Burr Williams
Senior Naturalist, sportsandoutdoors.guru
We humans like to scare ourselves. We would rather believe tabloid hyperbole than seek out fact. Humans gather at car wrecks to gawk. Urban legend and folklore is believed implicitly and whole-heartedly. It is the way we are – believing outrageous and ridiculous stories, and adding to them ourselves, stretching the story even more to make it our own.
For at least 15 years, I have been told by people that they have been finding Mojave rattlesnakes locally. The folktale that Mojave rattlesnakes have recently emigrated into Midland and Ector counties of West Texas has become a widely accepted belief. A half-dozen “positive specimens” have been brought to me, but when the dead snake gets here, somehow it has turned into a diamondback rattlesnake.
It only takes five minutes of Internet searching to learn that Mojave rattlesnakes do not live east of the Pecos River.
Less than a 100 specimens of Mojave rattlesnakes have been scientifically collected in the state of New Mexico, and most from the far southwestern “boot heel” of the state. A few have also been collected in New Mexico northeast of El Paso west of the Guadalupe Mountains. In Texas they have been collected only in Brewster, Presidio, Hudspeth and Culberson counties.
The Mojave rattlesnake is dreaded for good reason. It is the only rattlesnake in the U.S. with a neurotoxin. Mojave rattlesnake neurotoxins cause rapid, respiratory constriction or paralysis, and then heart failure (in mice and kangaroo rats, their favored prey), but actually rarely kill humans. Hemmorhagic toxins (the toxin of all other rattlesnakes) work slower, causing tissue destruction, then hemorrhaging if severe (but again, rarely fatal in humans). One researcher reports that out of 8000 rattlesnake bites (of all species), five deaths occurred.
“But the white bands on the tail are larger than the black bands, and that makes it a Mojave rattlesnake!” say the believers of the myth. They are adamant in clinging to this belief, and tend to get irate, huffy, stuffy, blustered, sputtered when told Mojave rattlesnakes do not live in Ector or Midland County.
Without a doubt the snakes shown to me have had larger white bands. It is not the diagnostic characteristic between the species. The white and black tail bands on diamondback rattlesnakes are variable. Mojave rattlesnakes have two (and rarely three) scales between the supraocular scales. The supraocular scales are the scales above the eye. Diamondbacks have four or more supraocular scales. It is that simple.
The myths associated with Mojave rattlesnakes are incredible. Michael Cardwell, a researcher at Loma Linda University who spent four years in the field studying Mojave rattlesnakes has a webpage of myths about Mojave rattlesnakes. Among those myths is one told in West Texas, that Mojave rattlesnakes do not rattle because they are incapable of rattling.
The stories get wilder: that they produce 150 babies (not the maximum of eight that has been recorded) … that they are a hybrid snake produced by the U.S. government to put down in the Viet Cong’s tunnels in Vietnam and then purposefully released in the U.S. by the government (supposedly to stop illegal immigration) … that their toxin is always fatal … or failing that, the Mojave rattlesnake toxin remains in the body for life, and will turn a person’s blood to jelly as they age. The most common myth about Mojave rattlesnakes claims that they are highly aggressive and will chase people.
The power of the myths about Mojave rattlesnakes amazes me. It also troubles me. It seems that for many people “nature” is scary and horrible and terrifying. I have seen children panic at seeing a few bees working on a flower and say, “those are killer bees and if you get too close they will attack.”
Or they say “I hate all spiders – they are all poisonous.” Or, “do not touch that butterfly – it is covered with germs – all bugs are covered with germs that can kill you.” Worst of all, “don’t sniff that flower – it is poisonous and will make you sick.”
Where do children learn such fear? Such beliefs might come from the parents, and some of it may come from television commercials. Advertisers hype the efficacy of their products, and hype the threats from which their products will protect us. As adults, will our children be so fearful of the out-of-doors that they will never venture beyond the confines of house, work, and automobile? Or do we already have a generation of young adults imbued with such fear? Where else might the fear originate?
And if our children are infected with such fear, what is the result? The Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois have published research that indicates that children with ADD and ADHD improve remarkably when involved with experiences in nature. Environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan of the University of Michigan have published papers about adults suffering from “directed attention fatigue” in which the symptoms are irritability, inability to concentrate, agitation and impulsive behavior.
Directed attention fatigue occurs in the workplace where the individual concentrates all day on one set of tasks. When these adults experience activities such as camping, canoeing, fishing or backpacking, the symptoms are minimized if not eradicated. After their experiences in nature, the afflicted perform better at their tasks.
Howard Gardner of Harvard University in 1983 identified “seven intelligences” — linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal. In 2003 he added another – naturalist intelligence. Leslie Wilson of the University of Wisconsin published research that shows experiences in nature are particularly important to attuning attention.
The myth about Mojave rattlesnakes occurring locally is a symptom of “nature-deficit disorder.” Our regional culture (of shared knowledge) is woefully ignorant of the natural world around us.
A majority of us do not know enough about the natural world we share with creatures, right here in our very own home. Worst of all, our ignorance breeds fear that borders on hysteria.
A life-long student of the plants, animals and history of the Llano Estacado, Burr Williams of Midland is one of the most respected and widely known naturalists in the Southwest. Follow him at facebook.com/burr.williams.5.