GREAT BASIN NATIONAL PARK — One of the enduring symbols of the West is the rattlesnake, and a lot of people just don't like them.
But experts on the Utah-Nevada border who've been tracking rattlers by radio say people ought to give the snakes a little slack. They're not as dangerous as most people think, and they seldom travel far from their dens in search of prey.
"The snakes are completely non-aggressive," said National Park Service biologist Bryan Hamilton. "About the only way they bite is if you try to catch them or you try to kill them, or if you accidentally stepped or sat on one."
The radio-equipped rattlesnakes are part of a research partnership between BYU and the National Park Service. For five years, researchers have been following the snakes' movements as they slither around at Nevada's Great Basin National Park, just 10 miles from the Utah border. The radios make it easy for researchers to track the snakes down so they can catch them and collect data.
That procedure is not entirely risk-free. Typically, the researchers head into the field wearing tall snake boots or leather snake chaps to protect their legs. That's just in case they come on a snake suddenly and trigger a defensive bite from the rattler.
Walking with an antenna and radio receiver on a recent field trip, Hamilton listened for beeps that guide him to the snake.
"As you get closer to the snake," he said, "the signal gets louder and more intense."
It's quite common for wildlife researchers to use radio-equipped collars when studying mammals. But a different system is necessary for rattlers. For obvious reasons, a collar just won't stay on a snake. Instead, the radio transmitter is surgically implanted under the snake's skin.
When a snake is headed for surgery, it's carried into a park service lab in a beverage cooler, often with its tail rattling in a menacing way.
They're a beautiful animal. In my mind, the West wouldn't be the same place without rattlesnakes. It wouldn't be near as interesting.
–Bryan Hamilton, National Park Service biologist
During a recent procedure, biological science technician Meg Horner deftly maneuvered a female snake into a plastic tube. The tube confines the snake's dangerous end — the head — and prevents it from striking or biting.
Then Horner plugged the end of the tube with a cotton ball dampened with anesthesia that will prevent the snake from feeling any pain.
"It will put her to sleep for the surgery," she said. "She'll be completely out."
In this case, the purpose of the surgery was to remove a radio transmitter because its battery was dying.
The surgery was performed by Beverly Roeder, a BYU biology professor and veterinarian. She said the ongoing studies are providing insights about rattlers and their Great Basin environment.
"These rattlesnakes are an indicator species," Roeder said.
By tracking down the radio-equipped snakes from time to time, researchers are able to collect data and monitor changes over time. From the pulse rate of the radio signals, they can calculate the snake's body temperature. They usually capture the snake and weigh it. They record weather information for each capture, and they take GPS readings so they can maintain an ongoing record of each snake's travels.
Maps have revealed that a typical rattler wanders only a mile or two from its den and always hibernates in the same place.
"They always return every fall," Hamilton said. "The winters out here are so harsh. If you find a good place, you want to stick with it."
The mapping also shows that the snakes frequently slither around the places where people tend to be, the park's visitor center and the entrance to the park's biggest attraction, Lehman Caves. Nevertheless, park officials say visitors don't have much to worry about because the rattlers prefer to avoid contact with people.
The snakes actually help people by eating disease-carrying rodents, Hamilton said, and they nearly always have a peaceful coexistence with humans, even if people don't always appreciate them.
"They're a beautiful animal," he said. "In my mind, the West wouldn't be the same place without rattlesnakes. It wouldn't be near as interesting."
Hamilton admits that a rattler bit him once, but he says it was his own
fault. He had grabbed the snake by the tail, a procedure he doesn't
recommend for anyone.