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Critters of the Desert: Snakes and other Desert Pests

What a scary topic! As we all know, knowledge is power. The better educated we all are about what desert pests and snakes are in our environment, the safer we will all be. We will be reviewing the most common venomous desert pests and snakes in the southwest. How to recognize them, where to find them and what to do if bitten or stung.

Snakes
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Most rattlesnake encounters happen in the spring and summer. These snakes like the warmer weather. It’s not uncommon to see them sunning themselves on a rock or even on the road.  There are about 19 different types of rattlesnakes in Arizona. Rattlesnakes are pit vipers and have heat sensing organs located in the pits of their eyes. This is how they can even strike prey at night because the prey is warmer than what surrounds it.

AZ Rattlesnake DHFD May 2024

The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is considered the most common in the southwest. These snakes are not very particular about where they live. They can be identified by their triangular shaped head, two dark diagonal lines on each side of their face and the dark diamond-shaped patterns along their back. What really gives them away is the black and white bands just above their rattles, along with the vibration noise they make with their rattles. The rattle is their warning system, and if you hear it, you need to step back in the direction you came, to be out of striking distance. Striking distance can be up to two feet. If you are interested in hearing what they sound like, go to www.desertmueseum.org.

If you are bitten, you need to seek immediate medical attention. The bite is rarely fatal. Try to stay calm, you do not want to get your heart rate up because exercise will increase the venom absorption. Do not try to suck the venom out and do not apply a tourniquet as doing either of these will cause additional injury and potential infection. Do not try to bandage or wash or irrigate the bite site. What is helpful is removing any clothing or jewelry that may be restrictive, as the bite wound will swell. To ensure the best outcome, focus on staying calm and seek immediate medical attention. Getting medical care within the first six hours lowers the fatality rate. Treatment is an antivenom.

Gila Monster

The Gila Monster is the largest venomous lizard native to the United States. They can grow up to 22 inches in length. They have big heads, and their body is covered in pink, yellow and black scales. They have long toes with sharp claws. They move slowly and awkwardly and have poor eyesight. They rely on smell and taste to hunt. These reptiles are protected by Arizona law from being captured, killed, or sold.

These creatures live in burrows and under rocks. They are primarily nocturnal and spend the majority of their time underground in burrows. They leave their hiding places to look for food. If you see one out and about, give it space as it is probably hungry and looking for food.

Gila Monster DHFD May 2024

Like snakes, the Gila Monster is not aggressive and will not chase humans. However, if provoked, they will bite. Before biting they may hiss or back away. This is their warning that they are going into defense mode. A bite can happen very quickly and when they bite, they clamp down and do not let go. The bite is very painful because once they bite down, they then try to chew.  

Per Arizona Poison Control, if bitten you will need to keep the injured area below the heart level and seek immediate medical attention.  Irrigate the bite wound with water, otherwise anything else may cause further injury and/or infection. Gila Monster bite symptoms can include swelling, sweating, vomiting, dizziness, and bruising.

Arthropods – Bees, Spiders and Scorpions
Per the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, over 4,500 arthropod bites and stings are reported to them each year. Arthropods have segmented bodies. The most common in Arizona that we should familiarize ourselves with are bees, spiders, and scorpions.

Bees

Bees DHFD May 2024

There are approximately more than 600 species of bees in the Sonoran Desert with the Western Honeybee being the most common.  In general bees are not aggressive. They will defend themselves and protect their hive by stinging and injecting venom. A bee will sting if you swat at it, step on it or disturb its hive. In most cases a single sting results in a mild reaction. You can easily remove the stinger by taking a credit card or your fingernail and drag it over your skin to pull it out.

There may be some redness and slight swelling, but the symptoms usually go away in a few hours. If the person happens to be severely allergic, the bee sting can cause an anaphylactic reaction. It is important to recognize the symptoms of anaphylaxis. Symptoms can include difficulty breathing, swelling of the tongue and throat, rapid pulse, nausea, hives, dizziness, and loss of consciousness. Immediate emergency treatment is required. Many adults know if they are allergic to bees because they have been stung in the past and will carry an Epi-Pen that will stop the severe symptoms.

There are some honeybees that are Africanized, and these bees will swarm and may give a person multiple sting.  Multiple stings are considered a medical emergency and immediate medical attention should be sought. If attacked by a swarm of bees you need to run as fast as you can until you reach a shelter whether it be a building or a car.

Bee Hive DHFD May 2024

Spiders
Our warm Arizona climate makes it a perfect place for spiders to live here. They like the warmth and dryness. Spiders prefer dark areas and can sometimes be found inside homes in closets, drawers and even on clothes. Outside you may find them in wood piles, under flowerpots, in the corners of garages and sheds and even inside of gardening gloves and boots.

Black Widow Spider

Black Widow DHFD May 2024

The black widow is a very well-known venomous spider. Females are black and have the unique bright red hourglass on their belly.  It is the female black widow spiders that generally bite. Females are bigger than males.

Male black widow spiders can be brown or black but do not have the red hourglass on their belly, instead they have red and white or red spots or stripes on their abdominal area.

Male Black Widow DHFD May 2024 1

Like most venomous pests Black Widows will bite if they feel threatened. If bitten, along with severe pain you may also experience stiffness and muscle spasms throughout your body. You may also have difficulty breathing, swelling of the eyes, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills. The site of the bite will indicate two red puncture marks.

Brown Recluse Spider

Horizontal image of a venomous brown recluse or fiddleback spider hiding inside a pair of denim jean pants.

Brown Recluse spiders have a violin shaped mark on their head. They also have six eyes, while most other spiders have eight eyes. As its name suggests, this spider seeks and prefers seclusion. It usually only bites when pressed against the skin. This can happen when they are in shoes, towels or bedding and inside work gloves.

Their bite is different from the black widow, in that the bite may not be noticed immediately and symptoms may not present for several days. The bite can cause swelling, pain, itching, redness, tenderness, and blisters and may eventually cause tissue necrosis. Medical attention is needed to manage the wound. It can take several weeks to heal.

Scorpion
There are several species of scorpions in Arizona with the bark scorpion considered life threatening.

The giant harry scorpion can grow to 6 inches in length and its venom is considered mild. The striped tail scorpion can grow up to 3 inches long. Their venom is not considered deadly to humans. The bark scorpion only grows to about 2 to 3 inches long and its tail is slenderer than others. Its venom is considered deadly to humans; however, death is rare.

Beautiful and imposing common yellow scorpion on a rock

Scorpions are most active at night during the summer nights and their sting is their defense mechanism. The sting causes immediate pain and numbness and tingling.

What to do if bitten: Remember to stay calm, most bites are not life threatening. You can clean the wound with soap and water. If symptoms worsen or if you are concerned, always seek medical attention. If you are not sure what to do, call poison control at 800-222-1222. If medical attention is sought, a healthcare provider may suggest a tetanus shot. They also may prescribe antivenom for Black Widow spider bites and Scorpion bites.

In summary spiders and snakes are a part of our environment. These pests are not aggressive, and most bites and stings are caused by accident. It’s rare that they become deadly. Always be aware of your surroundings. Wear gloves when working outside or gardening. If you see a snake or Gila Monster, give them a wide berth. Observe their beauty as they can be interesting and fun to watch. If you are bit or stung, seek medical attention. Share your knowledge with your friends, neighbors, and family. We live in a beautiful place and should not be afraid to go out and enjoy it.