Local sightings of “Mojave rattlesnakes” are a symptom of hysteria

Local sightings of “Mojave rattlesnakes” are a symptom of hysteria caused by “nature-deficit disorder”

Published Oct 4th 2006 in Wildlife

We humans like to scare ourselves. We would rather believe tabloid hyperbole than seek out fact. Humans gather at car wrecks and disasters and 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 five years, the Sibley Nature Center has been receiving reports of people finding Mojave rattlesnakes locally. The folktale that Mojave Rattlesnakes have recently emigrated into Midland and Ector County has become a widely accepted belief. A half-dozen “positive specimens” have been brought to us – but when the dead snake gets here, somehow it has turned into a Diamondback Rattlesnake. Mojave Rattlesnakes do not live anywhere this side of the Pecos River.

Less than a hundred specimens of Mojave rattlesnakes have been scientifically collected in the state of New Mexico, and most of those come 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 in Brewster, Presidio, Hudspeth, and Culberson counties.

It only takes five minutes of Internet searching to learn that Mojave rattlesnakes do not live east of the Pecos River.

The Mojave rattlesnake is dreaded for good reason. The Mojave rattlesnake is the only rattlesnake in the United States 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 and a couple of them have gotten irate, huffy, stuffy and blustered and sputtered when told Mojave Rattlesnakes do not live in Ector or Midland County.

Without a doubt the snakes shown to us 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. Diamondback rattlesnakes 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 the myths he has heard include 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 United States government to put down in the Viet Cong’s tunnels in Vietnam and then purposefully released in the United States by the government (supposedly to stop illegal immigration), that their toxin is always fatal, or failing that, that 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. At the Sibley Center, we 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 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,” and worst of all, “don’t sniff that flower – it is poisonous and will make you sick.”

Where do children learn such fear? Some of 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? From where else might the fear come?

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, and backpacking the symptoms are minimized if not eradicated, and perform better at their tasks than before the experiences in nature.

Howard Gardner of Harvard University identified “seven intelligences” in 1983; 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. The majority of us do not know what shares the natural world with us here in our very own home and worst of all – our fear of it borders on hysteria.