REGION — On Sunday Joanne Goss and her husband had gone for a hike around the trails of San Elijo near the MiraCosta College campus.
They started their walk around 10:30 a.m., but on the way back to their car, a little more than an hour later, Joanne was startled by what she spotted — a large rattlesnake on the trail.
For being early winter, yet, the sighting might seem unexpected, though perhaps not so unusual for our area.
The snakes in our area don’t even hibernate, explained Jeff Lemm, a herpetologist and senior research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.
“On warm days they will get up and move around,” he said, adding that during the wintertime it’s one of the easiest times to find them because they tend to stick to the rock piles.
Lemm has observed snakes on the move in December and January even. “It just doesn’t get cold enough here that they go into true hibernation,” he said.
While the warmer winters don’t really have an impact on the snakes, Lemm said that what was affecting the snakes was the continuing drought conditions.
“Their activity patterns are way below normal, numbers of snakes that we’re seeing are way down, about 50 percent of normal, and the snakes that we are finding look really rough,” he said.
Those observations are coming from the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s 900-acre biodiversity preserve.
But to the questions Lemm often gets asked: Are there more snakes? Are they breeding more? Are they becoming more venomous?
The answers he gives: “No. None of the above are true. There’s actually fewer snakes because of habitat loss.”
The coastal sage scrub in the county is one of the most endangered habitats in North America, if not the world, Lemm explained.
So far this year, the county’s Department of Animal Services has received 30 calls for rattlesnake removal (nine calls came in January, and 21 calls this month), according to Dan DeSousa, deputy director of the department.
“We see rattlesnakes throughout the year in San Diego County just because of the warmer climate here, but nowhere what we’ll see later on in the year,” DeSousa said.
He noted last year that the department received their highest number of calls, 197, in May.
If you’re out for a walk, DeSousa said, stay aware of your surroundings. Keep your dog on a leash. “If your dog’s 20 feet ahead of you without a leash, you can’t control it from interfering with a rattlesnake and possibly getting bit.”
“People tend to freak out about snakes for no real reason,” Lemm said.
“Snakes aren’t aggressive normally,” he added. “When people think they’re being aggressive, it’s because they’re being defensive. They’re scared for their life.”
For the snake that Joanne encountered, she said her husband counted nine segments on its rattle.
Lemm explained that every time a snake sheds, it gets a new segment on its rattle.
An older snake is going to have a longer rattle, but rattles tend to break off, Lemm said, so you can’t age a snake by the length of its rattle. “You just know the really large snakes often have larger rattles and more segments on their rattle.”
Snakes do play an important role in the ecosystem, especially in keeping rodent populations at bay.
The more snakes you kill, the more rodents you’re going to have, and the more hantaviruses you’re going to have, Lemm added.
People are starting to learn that snakes are good for the environment, he said. “Hopefully they keep learning that.”