CaliforniaHerps.com

A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California


Northern Pacific Rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus oreganus

Holbrook, 1840

(=Crotalus oreganus)
Click on a picture for a larger view




Range in California: Red

Click the map for a guide
to the other subspecies.


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Venomous and Potentially Dangerous!

northern pacific rattlesnake
Adult, Fresno County
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Adult, Contra Costa County Adult, Fresno County Adult, Yuba County Adult, Contra Costa County
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Adult in sunny basking spot,
San Joaquin County
Adult, 5,600 ft., Tuolumne County Adult, Santa Cruz County
Adult, San Joaquin County
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Adult, San Joaquin County Adult, Alameda County Adult, Napa County Adult, Del Norte County © Alan Barron
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Adult, Mare Island, Solano County Adult, 6,200 ft., Tuolumne County Adult, Shasta County © Richard Gentile
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Adult, San Joaquin County
© Chad Lane
Greenish adult, Lake County.
© Lawrence Anderson
Adult, Sutter Buttes, Sutter County.
© Jackson Shedd.
Specimen courtesy of Eric Olson.
Adult, Santa Clara County
© Leo Gomez
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Adult, Santa Clara County © John Worden Sub-adult, Santa Cruz County.
© Norbert Fanjat
Adult, 8280 ft., Tulare County.
© Scott Wiley
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Adult, Fresno County
© Patrick Briggs
Adult in Yosemite National Park
© Kenneth D. Cohn
© Ryan Hunter Intergrade with C. o. helleri , Santa Barbara County © Benjamin German
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Sub-adult, Placer County © Tyler Young Sub-adult, Placer County © Tyler Young Adult, Placer County © Tyler Young Adult, Placer County © Tyler Young
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Adult, Carrizo Plain, San Luis Obispo County © John Sullivan Adult, Carrizo Plain, San Luis Obispo County © John Sullivan Adult, Siskiyou County © Doug Jeffries
Adult, Plumas County © Railfan
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Adult, El Dorado County © Tyler Young Adult, El Dorado County © Tyler Young Adult, Placer County © Tyler Young Adult head close-up, Siskiyou County

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Adult tail and rattle

Adult tail and rattle Old rattlesnakes, especially those in captivity such as this one in a museum in Bend, Oregon, often have a very long string of rattles.
rattle      
Adult tail and rattle      
     
Juveniles
northern pacific rattlesnake
Juvenile, San Benito County
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Juvenile, Carrizo Plain,
San Luis Obispo County
Juvenile, Placer County Juvenile, Santa Cruz County Juvenile, Sonoma County
© Roman Duellge
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Juvenile, Kings County Juvenile, San Joaquin County Juvenile, San Benito County Juvenile, Alameda County
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Tiny juvenile, Mare Island, Solano County
Tiny juvenile with one rattle button, Stanislaus County © Chris Glover Juvenile, Placer County © Tyler Young
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Juvenile, San Luis Obispo County 
© Nate Smith

Juvenile, Plumas County © Railfan    
Unusual or Interesting Color and Pattern Variations
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This unusually-patterned snake from coastal dunes in San Luis Obispo County has a mostly patternless body with a pale dorsal stripe (similar to a garter snake) and the usual rings around the tail. © Kevin Crouch This juvenile rattlesnake with a very wide dorsal stripe and not a trace of a pattern or banding on the tail was found shot, killed, and decapitated in the San Antonio Valley in southern Monterey County. (Some of the gore has been censored in one of the enlarged versions.)   © Patricia Woodfill
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Very dark adult from western Kern County © Mike Waters A patternless green adult from Santa Cruz County © Ben Witzke
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Oddly-patterned juvenile from western Kern County © Mike Waters

Adult, San Mateo County, ready to shed - showing very little contrast in its pattern. © Melissa Amarello
Adult, 8280 ft., Tulare County.
© Ken D. Wiley
Adult, Kern Plateau, Kern County
© Sam Wilson
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Patternless adult, Contra Costa County
© Ameet Zaveri
Albino juvenile, Santa Clara County © Neil Keung Adult snake from Alameda County with very little pattern © David Rodriguez
     
Breeding Adults
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Breeding adults discovered together under a piece of tin, San Joaquin County Breeding adults, San Mateo County
© Zach Lim
   
       
Breeding Males in "Combat Dance"
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Two males in a wrestling match over a female in late April in Santa Clara County. The shot on the far right shows a snake on the ground, probably the female, with one of the males above her. During the action, a third male also entered the scene, which is not shown here. © Holly Lane  
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Two males in combat near Big Sur in Monterey County in early August. © Melissa Witte
 
Feeding
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Adult eating a rodent, Kern County. © Renee Simpson

A large adult eating an even larger rabbit in Sonoma County. © Chris Arai
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 A Northern Pacific Rattlesnake eating a kangaroo rat in Alameda County © Jon Hirt
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In the ten pictures above, sequenced from left to right, top to bottom, a Northern Pacific Rattlesnake is shown eating a chipmunk at the top of the rocky fire lookout shown here in Sierra County. Notice the huge lump in the snake in the last picture where the chipmunk has ended up.
© Michael Gates

Predation
California Kingsnake California Kingsnake California Kingsnake California Kingsnake
California Kingsnakes eat snakes along with other animals. They are immune to rattlesnake venom, so they
sometimes eat rattlesnakes. This one is eating a juvenile Southern Pacific Rattlesnake. © Kimberly Deutsch
This California Kingsnake is almost finished eating a juvenile Northern Pacific Rattlesnake.   © Michele Coughlin
rattlesnake rattlesnake California Mountain Kingsnake California Mountain Kingsnake
A California Striped Racer - Coluber lateralis lateralis, eats a juvenile Southern Pacific Rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus helleri, in Los Angeles County. © Anthony

This Sierra Mountain Kingsnake is eating a juvenile
Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. © Patrick Briggs
Variations in Appearance Near the Southern Range Limit
C. o. oreganus near its southern range limit is variable in appearance, sometimes with markings similar to C. o. lutosus. Identification of rattlesnakes found in this region can be confusing and open to debate. I have received several comments that I might have mis-identified snakes from this region - that they could be intergrades or hybrids, or that the Kern County snake depicted below left is actually C. o. lutosus. However, it is a C. o. oreganus, based on appearance, location, and some preliminary genetics work that has been done in the area. The Inyo county rattlesnake depicted below right from the southern Sierras has been identified by various viewers of the photo as C. o. oreganus or C. o. lutosus, or as a young Panamint Rattlesnake - Crotalus stephensi which is what it is.

Rumors of C. oreganus x C. stephensi hybrids have not yet been confirmed by genetic analysis. Some of these controversies should be resolved when the results of further studies on these species are published.

According to herpetologist Robert Hansen, who has studied in depth the reptiles and amphibians of the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains and the surrounding regions: "Among populations of "oreganus" inhabiting arid landscapes near their southern range limits (e.g., southern San Joaquin Valley, Carrizo Plain), there is a tendency toward small size, light ground color, and reduced dorsal blotch size...features that cause these snakes to superficially resemble lutosus."..."The southern extent of the range of lutosus in eastern California (e.g., the Mono/Inyo counties region) has been mapped in reasonable detail, and thus far, there are no known instances where the ranges of oreganus and lutosus come into contact.
However, farther north, where the Sierra Nevada crest is much lower and the potential for populations of oreganus and lutosus to meet is likely greater, careful field studies are lacking. Ultimately, reliance on features of coloration and pattern to distinguish one form from the other in areas of potential contact is not advised."

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Adult, Greenhorn Mountains,
Kern County
Robert Herndon found this adult C. o. oreganus near Three Rivers in Tulare County. © Robert Herndon

Adult C. o. lutosus, Mono County
© David Tobler
Panamint Rattlesnake - Crotalus stephensi, Inyo County © Carl Brune
Habitat
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Habitat, San Joaquin County Habitat, Alameda County Habitat, San Joaquin County Habitat, Contra Costa County
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Habitat, Alameda County Habitat, Contra Costa County Habitat, Yuba County Habitat, Mare Island, Solano County
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Habitat, western Fresno County Habitat, western Kings County Chaparral Habitat, Lake County
© Lawrence Anderson
Habitat, Sonoma County
© Roman Duellge
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Den site, Contra Costa County
© Erik Grouell
Habitat, Contra Costa County
© Erik Grouell
Habitat, aprox. 3,000 ft. Siskiyou County © Doug Jeffries Habitat, Temblor Range,
San Luis Obispo County
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Habitat, 5,600 ft., Tuolumne County Habitat, Mt. Breckenridge, Kern County Habitat, 5,400 ft. Sierra Nevada Mountains, Kern County Habitat, Carrizo Plain,
San Luis Obispo County
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Habitat, Carrizo Plain,
San Luis Obispo County

Den - a deep crack in a large boulder, with a
snake basking in front, early March, Kern County.
 
Short Videos and Sounds
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A Northern Pacific Rattlesnake crossed a mountain road on a windy spring morning in Contra Costa County then coiled defensively at the edge of the road. Concerned with my presence a few yards away, it is seen here sensing the air with its tongue and rattling its tail, then pausing to watch a bicycle speed down the road, then rattling some more. A juvenile rattlesnake rattles and crawls off a road in the foothills of Fresno County in early Fall. A Northern Pacific Rattlesnake
shakes its tail.
The snake here is seen slowly following a snake hook with curiosity, not aggression. The hook had been used earlier to pick up a breeding pair of snakes, and we decided that this one was probably a male that smelled the scent of the breeding female on the hook.
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Most rattlesnakes will do exactly what this one did when I encountered it in the late afternoon on a mountain road - turn and crawl quickly away, with a little rattling thrown in as a warning.  Rattlesnakes are often depicted in fiction as aggressors, leaping and striking viciously, often for no reason other than to give the hero an excuse to kill it to prove himself. The truth is that rattlesnakes are almost always defensive, not offensive, when they encounter humans, wanting nothing more than to escape, and the least heroic thing someone can do is to automatically kill them.

This video begins with a squirrel's high-pitched alarm call coming from a large group of shrubs in the Sierra Nevada mountains. When I got closer the squirrel ran away and I saw this rattlesnake climbing down a branch then farther back into the bushes. Later, after the camera batteries died, the snake returned and crawled outside the shrubs while the squirrel called and ran around outside the bushes near the snake, but outside of its striking range. A Northern Pacific Rattlesnake in the Sierra Nevada mountains crawls into a crack and shakes its tail. Listen to a Northern Pacific Rattlesnake rattling.

 
sign sign sign
  Click on the picture to see more rattlesnake signs.

 

Rattlesnakes are important members of the natural community. They will not attack, but if disturbed or cornered, they will defend themselves. Reasonable watchfulness should be sufficient to avoid snakebite. Give them distance and respect.

"Rattlesnakes are also among the most reasonable forms of dangerous wildlife: their first line of defense is to remain motionless; if you surprise them or cut off their retreat, they offer an audio warning; if you get too close, they head for cover. Venom is intended for prey so they're reluctant to bite, and 25 to 50 percent of all bites are dry - no venom is injected."
Leslie Anthony. Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist. Greystone Books, 2008.

Rattlesnake bites can be extremely dangerous, but unlike the popular depiction of rattlesnakes in the media and folklore, they should not be considered vicious and aggressive. The display we often see in pictures and film, with the body partly coiled, the tail rattling loudly, and the head up ready to strike, is a defensive stance, used when they feel that crawling away to safety is a danger to them. This display is a warning not to come any closer or they will strike. When given some space and the chance to escape to a safe place, they will do so quickly rather than attack.

Rattlesnakes often use their cryptic color and pattern to blend into their surroundings to hide from other animals that could threaten them. They lie still to avoid detection and do not rattle, because that would give away their location. At other times they rattle readily, sometimes from a good distance, to warn potential enemies of their presence. In both cases they are doing everything they can to avoid confrontation and to avoid striking and biting and using up their valuable supply of venom.

Description

Venomous
The venom of this snake is potentially dangerous to humans.
Size
Adults 15 - 36 inches long, ( 38 - 91 cm) sometimes up to 48 inches (121 cm) with 60 inches being the longest (151 cm).
Appearance
A heavy-bodied, venomous pit viper, with a thin neck and a large triangular head. Pupils are elliptical. Scales are keeled. Usually with a light stripe extending diagonally from behind the eye to the corner of the mouth.

The ground color is variable, matching the environment - olive-green, gray, brown, golden, reddish brown, yellowish, or tan. Dorsal blotches on the front 2/3 of the body, change to dark bars on the body and dark and light rings on the tail which are well-defined and of uniform width. Young have a bright yellow tail. The underside is pale, sometimes weakly mottled.

Dark brown or black blotched markings, usually with dark edges and light borders, mark the back, with corresponding blotches on the sides. This pattern is brighter on juveniles than on adults.

A rattle, consisting of loose interlocking segments, usually occurs at the end of the tail. A new rattle segment is added each time the skin is shed. Newborn snakes do not have a rattle - just a single button which does not make a sound.

Heat sensing pits on the sides of the head help the snake to locate prey by their warmth. Long, hollow, movable fangs connected to venom glands inject a very toxic venom which quickly immobilize prey. The snake can control the amount of venom injected and the fangs are replaced if broken. Bites on humans are potentially dangerous without immediate medical treatment. Even a dead snake can bite and inject venom if the jaws reflexively open when they are touched.
Similar Subspecies
Notes on identifying subspecies of Western Rattlesnakes, Crotalus oreganus, found in California.
Behavior
Primarily nocturnal and crepuscular during periods of excessive daytime heat, but also active during daylight when the temperature is more moderate. Not active during cooler periods in Winter. In colder areas, known to den in burrows, caves, and rock crevices, sometimes in large numbers, and sometimes with other snake species.

Prey is found while the snake is actively moving, or by ambush, where the snake waits near lizard or rodent trails, striking at and releasing passing prey. The snake then follows the trail of the envenomated animal and swallows it whole.

When alarmed, a rattlesnake shakes its tail back and forth. The movement rubs the rattle segments together producing a buzzing sound which serves as a warning. Juveniles are born with only a silent button at the end of the tail.
Diet
Eats birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, insects, and small mammals, including mice, rats, rabbits, hares, and ground squirrels. (Adult California Ground Squirrels are immune to rattlesnake venom and will intensely confront any snake they feel to be a threat.)
Reproduction
Live-bearing; young are born August - October.
Range
This subspecies, Crotalus oreganus oreganus - Northern Pacific Rattlesnake, is found in California from Santa Barbara county, where it intergrades with the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake, east to the Sierras, and north from the coast to the Sierras and west of the Cascades ranges. Out of California it continues north through Oregon, west of the Cascades in Washington and into British Columbia, Canada, and east west-central Idaho.

The species Crotalus oreganus - Western Rattlesnake, occurs from the Pacific Coast of northern Baja California north through most of California except the southern deserts, through Oregon and eastern Washington into British Columbia, Canada, and east into Nevada, Idaho, Utah, northern Arizona, extreme southwestern Wyoming, and extreme northwestern New Mexico.
Habitat
Inhabits rocky hillsides, talus slopes and outcrops, rocky stream courses, rocky areas in grasslands, mixed woodlands, montane forests, pinyon juniper, sagebrush. Sea level to around 11,000 ft.
Taxonomic Notes
The taxonomy of Western Rattlesnakes is controversial and still being studied.

Some researchers still use the former species name Crotalus viridis and for them this snake remains Crotalus viridis oreganus.

In a 2002 study, Douglas, Douglas, Schuett, Porras, & Holycross
[2002. Phylogeography of the Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) Complex, With Emphasis on the Colorado Plateau]. Pp. 11-50. In Biology of the Vipers [Schuett, Höggren, Douglas, and Greene (editors). Eagle Mountain Publishing, Eagle Mountain, Utah]
split C.viridis into 7 distinct species:

Crotalus oreganus oreganus
becomes Crotalus oreganus,
Crotalus oreganus helleri
becomes Crotalus helleri, and
Crotalus oreganus lutosus
becomes Crotalus lutosus.

The common names remain the same.


According to Todd Battey, author of SoCal Herps, an electronic field guide to the reptiles and amphibians of Southern California, Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes that occur from the Carrizo Plains south along the western side of the San Joaquin Valley differ from others of the subspecies in having a yellow dorsal coloration, a large dose of mojavetoxin in the venom, and fewer large scales between the supraoculars. This form is called the "Carrizo Yellow" form and may be distinct enough to be considered a separate subspecies.
Conservation Issues  (Conservation Status)
None.

Taxonomy
Family Viperidae Vipers Crotalidae - Pitvipers
Genus Crotalus Rattlesnakes Linnaeus, 1758
Species oreganus Western Rattlesnake Holbrook, 1840
Subspecies


oreganus Northern Pacific Rattlesnake Holbrook, 1840
Original Description
Crotalus viridis - Rafinesque, 1818 - Amer. Month. Mag. Crit. Rev., Vol. 4, No. 1, Nov. p. 41
Crotalus viridis oreganus - Holbrook, 1840 - N. Amer. Herp., Ed. 1, Vol. 4, p. 115, pl. 29 [24 in text]

from Original Description Citations for the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America © Ellin Beltz

Meaning of the Scientific Name
Crotalus - Greek - krotalon - a rattle - refers to the rattle on the tail
oreganus
- belonging to the state of Oregon - referring to the type locality, "banks of Oregon or Columbia River"

from Scientific and Common Names of the Reptiles and Amphibians of North America - Explained © Ellin Beltz

Alternate Names
Crotalus viridis oreganus

Crotalus oreganus

Timber Rattlesnake (It is not uncommon for a rattlesnake found in a forested area in California to be called a Timber Rattlesnake. The true Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is not found in California. It occurs from southeast Minnesota down to central Texas and east to northern Florida up to south-central New Hampshire.)

Mojave Green (Probably due to the green coloring on some Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes, they are sometimes called a Mojave Green, especially in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Northern Mohave Rattlesnake (aka Mojave Green) occurs only in the deserts south and east of the range of the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake.)
Related or Similar California Snakes
C. o. helleri - Southern Pacific Rattlesnake
C. o. lutosus - Great Basin Rattlesnake
C. atrox - Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake
C. s. scutulatus - Northern Mohave Rattlesnake
C. stephensi - Panamint Rattlesnake

More Information and References
Natureserve Explorer

California Dept. of Fish and Game

Living With Rattlesnakes

California Department of Fish and Game: Rattlesnakes in California

University of California: Rattlesnakes Management Guide

Tucson Herpetological Society: Living With Venomous Reptiles pdf

Florida Museum of Natural History: How to Get Along with Snakes

Southwestern Field Herping Associates: Venomous Snake Safety

Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management - Rattlesnake Control / Snake Control


Rattlesnake Bites


California Poison Control System (search for "rattlesnake bite")

University of Arizona: Rattlesnakes

Justin Schwartz' Rattlesnake Bite Story and Pictures

Sean Bush MD: Venom ER - When snakes strike!

eNature - How to Avoid Snakebites and How to Treat One

When a Pet Gets Snake Bitten: The amazing story of Andy Cat, a very lucky cat who was bitten by a rattlesnake and survived, thanks to the smart actions of its owners.


Publications


Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M.  Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.

Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.

Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Snakes of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.

Bartlett, R. D. & Alan Tennant. Snakes of North America - Western Region. Gulf Publishing Co., 2000.

Brown, Philip R. A Field Guide to Snakes of California. Gulf Publishing Co., 1997.

Ernst, Carl H., Evelyn M. Ernst, & Robert M. Corker. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.

Wright, Albert Hazen & Anna Allen Wright. Handbook of Snakes of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press.

Ernst, Carl. H. Venomous Reptiles of North America. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.

Hayes, William K., Kent R. Beaman, Michael D. Cardwell, and Sean P. Bush, editors. The Biology of Rattlesnakes. Loma Linda University Press, 2009.

Hubbs, Brian R., & Brendan O'Connor. A Guide to the Rattlesnakes and other Venomous Serpents of the United States. Tricolor Books, 2011.

Klauber, Laurence M. Rattlesnakes. University of California Press. (Abridged from the 1956 two volume Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind.) University of California Press, 1982.

Rubio, Manny. Rattlesnake - Portrait of a Predator. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.

Walls, Jerry G. Rattlesnakes: Their Natural History and Care. T. F. H. Publications, Inc., 1996.


Conservation Status

The following status listings come from the Special Animals List and the Endangered and Threatened Animals List which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.


This snake is not included on the Special Animals List, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.

Organization
Status Listing
U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) None
California Endangered Species Act (CESA) None
California Department of Fish and Wildlife None
Bureau of Land Management None
USDA Forest Service None

 

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