June 23, 2020 - 9:00 am
Updated June 24, 2020 - 10:00 am
You may run into one of the state’s venomous species if you’re hiking, or even in your backyard, especially if you live on the outskirts of the valley.
If you’re hiking, or even in your backyard, especially if you live on the outskirts of the valley, you may run into one of Nevada’s 32 venomous species this summer.
It’s important to know the animals you may encounter — and actions to take to have positive interactions with wildlife.
Of the 32, five are rattlesnakes, 26 are arachnids and one is a rarely seen lizard. They are classified as venomous because they inject toxin into their prey.
Reptiles need to move in and out of the sun and shade to thermoregulate, or adjust their internal body temperature, and are active from mid-spring to late fall. During the day they seek shade just like humans. Scorpions, however, are nocturnal, meaning they come out only at night, and spiders often seek shade during the day to keep from drying out in the sun.
Doug Nielsen, a conservation educator with the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), said there’s a lot of wildlife in the desert, “but we don’t see it a lot of times because the only animal that’s dumb enough to be above ground in 110 degrees is us.”
Gila monsters live in burrows and spend more than 80 percent of their lives underground. When they do emerge, these large lizards feed on eggs and small mammals such as mice and rabbits, other lizards, and insects. Gila monsters store a large amount of fat in their tails, and this allows them to spend months below ground.
They can get up to 2 feet in length and weigh up to 5 pounds. Their jaws are incredibly strong. When a Gila monster bites down, it doesn’t let go. They inject venom into their prey through chewing, and the venom can cause swelling, nausea and vomiting. There have been no deaths from a Gila monster bite since the 1930s, according to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.
Although the venom is dangerous, it can also be a lifesaver. Researchers have created a synthetic version of a hormone in Gila monster saliva, used to treat Type 2 diabetes.
Urban sprawl is causing Gila monsters to lose their natural habitat. Climate change disrupting water cycles is also causing a decline in numbers. Unlike most lizards, they do not get water from their food. When the spring rains come, Gila monsters will emerge to eat and get water. Then they’ll go back underground and wait for the summer monsoons before they emerge again.
Climate change disrupts the natural water cycle that Gila monsters have evolved around. In an effort to conserve these large lizards, they are listed as a Protected reptile, under Nevada code. This protection makes it illegal to handle, kill, or otherwise interact with these animals. If you see one, give it space and take a photo and send it, with its location, to the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
These photos are crucial for understanding population size and distribution. Gila monsters have beaded skin (many large bumps) and are orange with black banding. Nielsen said that “the banding on a Gila monster is like a fingerprint. They’re each unique.” And so we can actually go back and identify a specific key to a Gila monster based on the pattern of the bands on his body.”
There are five species of rattlesnakes in Nevada: Mohave, sidewinder, Western diamondback, speckled, and Great Basin. In addition to these five venomous species, you may encounter the Great Basin gopher snake, which is a rattlesnake mimic. It looks and sounds like a rattlesnake when it vibrates its tail in dry grass or on gravel.
Rattlesnakes are not aggressive animals, however they will defend themselves against predators, including humans. If you disturb a rattlesnake, it may try to escape to shelter. If it seems like they are coming after you, you are likely standing in the way of the snake and its refuge. All you need to do is step out of its way.
The first line of defense for a rattlesnake is crypsis — an animal’s ability to be camouflaged in its habitat to avoid being seen by predators. Its next line of defense is to rattle its tail. It is saying, “Hey, maybe you don’t see me, or maybe you’re trying to eat me. I’m just going to let you know I’m venomous.”
Nielsen advised if you hear that rattle, stop moving, identify where the snake is, then give the snake space. If you’re on the trail, give it a wide berth as you walk around it. If it’s in your backyard, back away, it will probably leave your backyard on its own.
The best way to make your backyard unappealing to rattlesnakes is to keep it clean, “because if you have clutter, dead branches, or garbage stacked up in part of your yard, then you’re going to attract things. Mice and rats, of course, will attract the snakes,” he added.
The Mohave rattlesnake, also known as the Mohave green, has the most potent venom of any rattlesnake in the Nevada desert. It is also the most elusive. Unless you are looking for it, you are unlikely to ever see it. Often people confuse the Western diamondback rattlesnake with Mohave rattlesnakes. They are distinguished from one another by patterning on the face and tail. Diamondback rattlesnakes are also rare to see in Nevada, found only in the southernmost parts of the state.
Las Vegans are most likely to see the speckled rattlesnake. There are two subspecies found in the area, the Southwestern speckled rattlesnake and the Panamint rattlesnake. Subspecies are groups of animals that are genetically different enough that they aren’t called the same thing, but too similar to be classified as distinct species. Speckled rattlesnakes may have very pronounced speckles, faint speckles or no speckles at all.
The sidewinder is named after the way it travels — it moves to the side in an ‘S’ pattern. It is the smallest rattlesnake in Nevada and likes to be partially buried in the sand. It is also called the horned-rattler because of the two hornlike scales over its eyes.
The Great Basin rattlesnake can vary in color but is often some shade of brown or gray. It is widely distributed across the state, but Clark County is the only Nevada county where it isn’t found.
Snake venom will destroy skin tissues and blood cells, which can result in internal bleeding. According to the University of Florida Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, 1 in 37,500 people are bitten each year in the United States, so the average person’s risk is very low.
It is important that you do not try to kill the snake that bit you. The increase in heart rate will cause the heart to pump venom to other parts of the body faster. Even when beheaded, a rattlesnake can still strike and envenomate (inject venom) a second time.
If you can, take a photo of the snake so doctors can quickly administer the right kind and dosage of antivenom. Nielsen emphasized that venom extraction kits and other home remedies, such as sucking out the venom, will only cause more damage. The chemicals in snake venom quickly disperse through the bloodstream so it would be impossible to effectively suck it out. Extraction kits only aggravate the affected site further.
Sometimes a rattlesnake may strike but release no venom, called a dry bite. Other times it may release a partial or full dose of venom. The amount of time you have before it’s too late to seek treatment depends on how much venom you received.
Jay Fisher, medical director of the Pediatric Emergency Department at University Medical Center Children’s Hospital, said it is easy to know if a rattlesnake bite does result in envenomation.
Within a few hours the toxin will begin to wreak havoc on the body. The hard part is figuring out the proper treatment. “Whenever we think a real envenomation has occurred and venom has been released, we admit the patient and immediately begin our strategy of determining whether or not the patient needs the antivenom. The question, though, of how much venom is always very, very difficult,” Fisher said.
He also emphasized that rattlesnake bites are incredibly rare. In fact, he said he sees a hundred times more scorpion and black widow spider envenomations than rattlesnake bites.
The chemicals in rattlesnake venom can also contribute to medical advances. It has been used in ridding the body of the microorganism that causes leishmaniasis disease (which causes skin sores or organ damage), as well as treating cancer.
If you wait for the sun to go down, step outside and shine a black light on the ground, you’re almost guaranteed to see the smallest venomous creature in Nevada, scorpions, glowing on the desert floor as they scurry around.
Scorpions have been around since before the dinosaurs. “They are some of the oldest, you know, living animals over 450 million years ago. They’ve been relatively unchanged,” said Michael Webber, a professor of biology at the College of Southern Nevada. These nocturnal arachnids generally range from 1 to 3 inches in length, but some like the hairy scorpion can reach up to 6 inches. Scorpions tend to have light or dark brown legs and stingers with brown to black bodies. Some scorpions have light and dark banding on the body.
You’re most likely to find scorpions in newly developed areas or areas with irrigation, as the water will attract their prey: small insects. According to Webber, the best way to keep scorpions out of your home is to make sure there are no cracks where they can find their way in.
Many of the 25 species of scorpions in Nevada are relatively harmless. The sting is similar to that of bee and probably won’t be a serious medical event if you aren’t allergic, she explained.
However, the sting of the bark scorpion can be very serious, especially for small children and the elderly. Keeping bark scorpions out of your home can be difficult because they are one of few species that can crawl on walls and be on your ceiling, she said. If one is found in your home, use a long pair of tongs or tweezers to remove it.
Like Gila monsters and rattlesnakes, scorpion venom is being used to develop treatments for various diseases in humans, including cancer.
The female black widow spider is usually 1.5 inches long and .25 inches in diameter. She is a sit-and-wait predator, hanging upside down hoping a tasty snack will come by. This position shows the red, sometimes orange or yellow, hourglass marking that is in distinct contrast to her shiny black body. Black widows like to live in dark areas like wood or rock piles, rodent burrows, garages and sheds.
The only time a human will be bitten is if he or she disturbs the spider. Although black widows are the most venomous spiders in America, envenomations rarely result in death. The initial bite feels like a pinprick and can result in nausea, muscle aches and difficulty breathing. After receiving medical attention, most people will recover within 24 hours.
Scientists are working to understand how spider toxin, including black widow venom, can be used in the medical field.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated that the Gila Monster was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) is classified as a Protected reptile, under Nevada code.
Earyn McGee is a 2020 Mass Media reporting fellow through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @Afro_Herper.