Snakes on the Land

Snakes awaken from their seasonal “brumation” in spring, making this important predator much more active and visible this time of year.

There are more snakes being seen out on the trails, and these sightings coincide with the time of year that snakes

Pacific Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer)

Pacific Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer)

come out of a kind of hibernation. Being aware of this springtime activity, as well as some basic snake safety tips, helps people and wildlife coexist on the land. The number one thing to remember? Leave the snakes alone, and they will return the favor.

Like bears and other mammals that go through a seasonal hibernation, when their bodies shut down for the winter, snakes and other cold-blooded reptiles go through a similar “brumation.” This process greatly slows their metabolism, making the snakes lethargic and largely inactive. Reptiles stop eating during brumation, and their heart and respiratory rates, as well as their digestion, slow significantly. In spring, warmer temperatures and other environmental signals cause snakes to emerge from the underground burrows where they have been brumating to once again feed and breed out on the land.

With increased snake activity, interactions between snakes and people tend to increase in the spring. Visitors should be extra cautious of watching the trail as they go along, and if you happen to see a snake while out on a trail, there is no need to panic. First, remember that the desire to avoid any kind of an interaction is mutual. Snakes will most likely try to move away from you when you get close. If a snake is sunning itself across the trail and does not move away, give the snake plenty of room, and leave it an escape route. It will most likely slither into nearby foliage and leave you alone to go on your way. Also, remember that most snakes common in the Irvine ranch Natural Landmarks are nonvenomous and pose little threat to people. Those that are venomous use their venom primarily to kill and subdue small prey rather than for self-defense.

While venomous snakes can sometimes pose a small threat to us and our pets, it is important to remember that they are also an essential and integral part of the local ecosystem. They make up a significant proportion of the “middle-order” predators that help keep other species’ populations in check— acting as a natural form of pest control. Without this carnivorous reptile, rodents and other small prey would reproduce exponentially and populations would increase to unnatural and unsustainable levels. Snakes are also food for larger predators like mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and birds of prey.

The most common snakes found in Orange County are the California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula califoriae),

Red Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)

Red Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)

Pacific Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer), Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum), Racer (Coluber constrictor), Red Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) and the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri). Only rattlesnakes pose any kind of a real threat to people. Aside from the obvious rattle, rattlesnakes can be identified, as compared to other snakes, by their much broader, triangular-shaped head and fatter body.

One of the most common snakes you will see along the trails is the gopher snake, and because of their similar coloring, gopher snakes are sometime confused with rattlesnakes. When threatened, gopher snakes can flatten their heads, hiss loudly and quickly shake their tails back and forth in dry grass to mimic a rattlesnake. While apparently menacing, these light brown, spotted snakes are considered harmless to humans.

Being aware and appropriately cautious while on trails will greatly decrease the odds of any kind of a negative encounter with a snake. Staying on the trail is the most important precaution you can take— snakes usually remain in the protection of bushes, logs and stony crags. Snakes are “ectothermic” animals, which means they regulate body temperature through external sources. This is why they often use a hiking trail as a place to spread out and sun themselves. Scanning the trail in front of you makes it much more likely for you to see them in time and to stop and let them escape.

It’s important to also remember to never step, climb or reach into an area that you can’t see. To make sure you won’t startle an unsuspecting snake when you need to cross over a big log or rock and cannot see the other side, it is a good idea to first step on top of the obstacle so you can see where your feet are going to land on the other side. Similarly, if you are in an area outside the Landmarks that permits climbing, don’t put your hands onto a ledge or handhold without being able to see what is there first.

If you do happen to encounter a snake while visiting the local trails, do your best to just leave it alone. Do not attempt to physically move the snake or to try and get it to move. If given a chance, the snake will move away on its own. Over a third of snakes bites take place when people try to interact with the snake in some way—trying to move or kill them. Just leave them alone, and they will most likely leave you alone.

There is no need to report snakes that you see out along trails in the Landmarks. They belong there. If you do happen

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri)-- Photo by Alex Gurrola

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri)– Photo by Alex Gurrola

to come across a venomous snake in a higher-traffic area such as an urban area, park, or at a trailhead, you should report it to the local Park Rangers, Open Space Patrol Officers or park staff. If you spot a snake while on a guided program, you should make the lead guide aware.

While many people have a learned or instinctual fear of snakes, following rational precautions while out in the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks will minimize the risk of startling an unsuspecting snake, and make the threat they pose to humans minimal. Snakes are an important part of local ecosystems and deserve our respect and protection.

To enjoy spring in the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks yourself, please visit www.LetsGoOutside.org/activities. Most of the docent-led programs are free and require pre-registration for all participants (children must attend with their parent or guardian). Who knows? You might even be lucky enough to see some snakes.