Wildlife Finds: Hopi Rattlesnake
Photo: A Hopi rattlesnake in captivity. (Herman Pijpers via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
Rattlesnakes are one of the Southwest's most iconic creatures, despite the fact they can be found from Minnesota to Texas. The western or prairie rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis), though, is one of the most widespread and adaptable, finding homes in harsh deserts of the Southwest and the snows of the northern Great Plains all the same. Because of their wide range, there are many subspecies and differences in local populations, plus plenty of hybridization (interbreeding) between subspecies and even other species altogether.
Rattlesnakes of all kinds are a fearsome predator for a great number of small animals, including birds and their eggs, rodents, mammals, and even other snakes and reptiles. Their venomous bites have a dramatic effect on even the most thick-skinned animals.
One of the most distinct subspecies of rattlesnake is the Hopi rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis nuntius). They can be found all across the Colorado Plateau (the Four Corners area), and especially in Northern Arizona. While there is actually a lack of scientific consensus over whether different C. viridis populations are distinct enough to be called subspecies, this particular type is known for its distinct coloration and behavior patterns. For example, the largest Hopi rattlesnakes are usually substantially smaller than the largest prairie rattlers, and the Hopis tend to burrow in solitude while other subspecies can be found in pits of dozens or even hundreds.
Its name (both common and scientific) reveals a lot about its. "Crotalus" can be translated as "castanet" or "rattle," while "viridis" simply means "green" (which is a misnomer for the Hopi rattlesnake, which usually takes on a more reddish tinge) . According to researchers Mark Davis and Michael Douglas, "The Hopi Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) received its subspecific epithet of ‘nuntius’ from Laurence Klauber (Klauber, 1935) as a tribute to its signifcance to the Hopi Indians as messengers to the gods of the underworld" (2016).
Famously, certain members of the Hopi partake in a rite involving the ritual handling and releasing of the Hopi rattlesnake. Holding the rattlesnake in high esteem as a protector of water and a messenger, this Hopi rite is usually performed for aid in bringing needed rains and groundwater to the desert.
If you see a Hopi rattlesnake in the wild, keep calm and avoid it while treating it with reverence. A great number of injuries with these snakes come from a lack of attention (placing hands or feet where you can't see them) or from deliberately trying to grab, attack, or provoke them. Find some tips on avoiding snakes from the Forest Service.
Find out more about the Prairie rattlesnakes and their subspecies here.