Snaking Away

Researchers from around the world are paid virtually nothing to work long hours week after week in primitive mountain isolation. Their quest? The mysterious rattlesnake called ridgenose.

The fire pit is located on a ledge providing a view that stretches, seemingly, into eternity. A half-dozen succeeding mountain ranges extend across the northeastern horizon; they are separated by wide, dusty valleys. The landscape is unbroken by road or building. Ten-mile-long shadows cast by huge cumulus clouds--they will become powerful thunderheads that provide afternoon and evening entertainment--drift across the landscape. The only sounds are the cracklings of fire, occasional gusts of wind and scattered bird calls.

It doesn't take long before the other three members of the crew smell the grilling steaks and descend from a ring of peaks that tower 2,000 feet above the plateau. Empty canvas snake bags tell their story: It has been a fruitless, five-hour morning hunt. But spirits are high. The trek is as important as the capture.

"Just look as hard as you can and be real happy when you find one," Sifert explains.

A feast of cube steak and half-cooked rice is celebrated. Then comes a midafternoon siesta.

As the sun descends, the researchers emerge from resting spots beneath junipers and rock overhangs and quietly return to their mission: tracking snakes and setting rodent traps. First, though, there's a show. Nearby, a mountain spiny lizard, a favorite prey of the ridgenose rattler, captures a scorpion and slowly devours its meal, head first.

"I have never seen that before," a delighted Holycross says, watching the scorpion's tail disappear down the lizard's throat.

There are few things Holycross hasn't seen on this remote mountaintop. He's probably seen the ridgenose snake more often and more closely than any other researcher--perhaps a bit too closely. While he was examining a ridgenose last year, it bit him three times on his little finger. Holycross wasn't sure whether the snake had injected venom.

"I decided to wait and find out. So I ate dinner," he says.
Before long, his hand and arm swelled, and he immediately began hiking down the mountain. He ended up in a Tucson hospital for several days of antivenin treatment, an expensive ordeal that costs, on average, more than $15,000 and leaves a patient physically drained.

The snake bite hasn't deterred Holycross from pursuing the study, but it has made him more wary. "I don't want a second one," he says.

If Holycross has become more careful, that does not mean he will ever become a shrinking violet. Before bringing his current volunteers to the mountain, Holycross led them on a desert canyon hike up the narrows of Cibeque Creek, a Salt River tributary on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation in northeastern Arizona. Part of their initiation to desert living: a nighttime, 53-foot plunge down the inside of a waterfall.

"It seemed like it took forever to hit the water," Holycross says, grinning.
Now, to keep order among his troops, Holycross employs comedy and biting commentary, usually in a rapid-fire mix. Sometimes, he leaves his volunteers insulted and laughing at the same time. He jokingly calls himself "the dictator of Animas Mountain," but there is as much truth as joke to the title. But the stakes are high on Animas Mountain. The ASU biologist knows he has a rare opportunity to conduct research here; volunteers who don't buy into his program are ushered down the mountain.

That program includes an emphasis on learning about the ridgenose while inflicting as little impact on the snake and its environment as possible. It doesn't take much to disturb the habitat of the ridgenose rattlesnake. Amateur snake hunters, and those who illegally collect ridgenose for the black market, often wreak havoc on rattlesnake habitats by indiscriminately overturning rocks and logs in hopes of capturing the snakes.

"We don't look for them using those techniques," Holycross says.
Illegal collectors have strong financial incentives to disrupt habitats. The New Mexico ridgenose is a particularly hot item on the black market, fetching $5,000 or more from rabid Europeans seeking to round out their herpetological collections. In the United States, it is illegal to possess a ridgenose rattlesnake, dead or alive.

Because of the emphasis on habitat protection, the search for ridgenose rattlesnakes on Animas Mountain is time-consuming. Holycross' volunteers walk around the mountain, using long sticks to tap on rocks and logs and rustle through thickets. They look and listen, and when they get close, very close, the ridgenose rattlesnake usually makes its distinctive rattle--actually a subdued buzzing sound--as a warning to stay away.

Once a ridgenose is located, the trackers use 14-inch-long tweezers to grip the snake, usually about four inches below the base of its head.

Snakes found on flat ground or in woodlands are relatively easy catches: Grab the snake with the tweezers and quickly place it in a muslin bag, which is then tied closed.

Capturing snakes on the talus is far more challenging, especially when they decide to dive into crevices. Then, the tracker must carefully remove the rocks, sometimes rocks the size of small boulders, and pursue the snake.

Once a ridgenose is captured, the collector takes an array of measurements at the site. The time of the capture and the air temperature, surface temperature and soil temperature at the site are taken down. Humidity is tested. Cloud cover is noted. The altitude and exact longitude and latitude are recorded. The type of vegetation present and the position and movement of the snake when it was found are documented.

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