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You Can Stop Worrying About Snakebite in the Baldwin Hills

Southern Pacific rattlesnake | Photo: acorbit, some rights reserved
Here's something you won't see at the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area: a southern Pacific rattlesnake | Photo: acorbit, some rights reserved

Here's the bad news: there is not, in all of the Baldwin Hills, a single rattlesnake. That means that the Baldwin Hills – that's the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, and the stretch of Ballona Creek running from Hahn to Highway 90 – are unable to benefit from the ecological services that a predator like the southern Pacific rattlesnake provides in Southern California ecosystems.

Here's the good news: there is not, in all of the Baldwin Hills, a single rattlesnake. That's good news, at least, for other snakes. It means that when hikers come across a snake, they can rest easy knowing that it poses virtually no threat to life and limb. Indeed, the only LA-area snake that poses even a potential hazard to humans is the southern Pacific rattler, and even then most bites occur in situations in which humans move within striking distance of an agitated snake. So: no rattlesnakes, even less of a reason to panic.

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The absence of rattlesnakes in the Baldwin Hills was noted by Natural History Museum biologist Greg Pauly and his team of herpetologists following a series of reptile and amphibian surveys conducted there in the springs and summers of 2014 and 2015. (Disclosure: this author occasionally collaborates with Pauly on other projects.)

Pauly already knew – it's been known for nearly fifty years – that there were no rattlesnakes there. "There is a common belief that rattlesnakes are in the Baldwin Hills," Pauly says. "And it's not an outlandish belief." Once you leave the LA basin and venture into the Santa Monicas, the San Gabriels, the San Bernadinos, the Chino Puente Hills, and so on, rattlesnakes are plentiful. "So people think: I'm outside in chaparral, so I need to be mindful of rattlesnakes."

Male southern Pacific rattlesnakes spar in the Puente Hills | Video: Robert Hamilton

Biologists first surveyed the Baldwin Hills in the 1970s. Those researchers didn't report any rattlesnakes, nor did biologists who resurveyed the area in the early 2000s.

However, both the historical surveys as well as the one Pauly just completed found that the most common snake in the Baldwin Hills is the gopher snake. And the gopher snake has a trick that leads people to confuse it with a rattlesnake.

When somebody scares it, "a gopher snake puts on a big bluff," he says. When otherwise harmless animals wish to defend themselves, many have evolved mechanisms for seeming more dangerous than they truly are. "It fills up with air to look big. It flattens out its head so it kind of looks like a rattlesnake, and it shakes its tail. In dry grass and leaves, it sounds like a rattlesnake," Pauly explains.

It's likely that rattlesnakes were found around the Baldwin Hills at some point in LA's history, but as one of the most feared and persecuted animals in the Southern California wildlife community, they were probably killed off. Even as other snakes – like gopher snakes and California king snakes – have managed to survive despite urban development, the southern Pacific — a subspecies of the western rattlesnake — disappeared. "They just don’t do that well around urbanization. They don't do well for all the reasons that other snakes don't do well, but they also don't do well because they face a much higher level of persecution because people are scared of them."

To recap: there aren't any rattlesnakes in the Baldwin Hills. If you're hiking there, and you think you see a rattlesnake, it's probably an agitated gopher snake. So you ought to leave it alone. (Even if it is a rattlesnake, you should leave it alone too.)

Pacific ringnecked snake | Photo: J. Maughan, some rights reserved
Pacific ring-necked snake | Photo: J. Maughan, some rights reserved

While Pauly and his colleagues were wholly unsurprised by the absence of rattlesnakes, their survey did turn up some other interesting critters. He identifies three surprises.

They found evidence for two native snake species that had not yet been recorded as having persisted in the Baldwin Hills.

The first was the ring-necked snake. These are beautiful animals with bright orange undersides and a bright orange ring around their body just behind the head.

The second was the red racer or coachwhip. These snakes are active during the day and are quite large, with large home ranges: all things that make it tough for snakes to survive urbanization. But somehow, the Baldwin Hills landscape has provided enough refuge that a small population persists there.

Pauly is pretty sure that each of the nine times his team observed a coachwhip, it was the same individual snake each time. But it's hard to imagine that there isn't at least a small population.

Unfortunately, he wasn't able to survey the entire landscape because there are private properties throughout the area, including the Holy Cross Cemetery, which did not permit him to conduct surveys on the premises. Perhaps a more thorough survey would yield additional coachwhips, and allow him to better assess the status of this species in the Baldwin Hills.

Third, he was surprised at the incredible number of non-native species he found. "Most of those are people's abandoned pets," he said. "And that was really sad, both for those animals that are being abandoned, and because of the impacts on the environment."

Coachwhip, a.k.a. red racer snake | Photo: Joshua Tree National Park
Coachwhip, a.k.a. red racer snake | Photo: Joshua Tree National Park

The ponds at Kenneth Hahn, for example, are chock full of red-eared sliders, along with a few bullfrogs. "A lot of that was relatively recent," Pauly says. "The previous biological surveys didn't report bullfrogs or red-eared sliders as recently as the early 2000s."

There are lots of feral cats, which have dramatic impacts on wild birds and lizards. He also found lots and lots of abandoned bunnies, especially in the weeks after the Easter holiday. And Ballona Creek turned up more non-native reptiles: soft-shelled turtles, river cooters, and more.

The final pattern that Pauly found staggering was the number of carcasses he found belonging to intentionally killed snakes, either beaten with sticks or chopped in half. "That's a really frustrating thing to see," he says. "People go out presumably to enjoy nature, and kill animals because they're scared of them." Insult is added to injury in this case, since the capital punishment is handed down purely as the result of mistaken identity.

On the bright side, the Baldwin Hills might be thought of as an island of open space surrounded by a roiling sea of urbanization, and it therefore could function as a sort of refuge for animals that were at one time spread across the Los Angeles Basin – like the ring-necked snake and the coachwhip.

It means that there are conservation possibilities here, if we can make the habitat that does exist more friendly and welcoming to native species. "There are opportunities to think about habitat restoration," Pauly says, "if we want to dedicate the energy and resources. And there are species that could benefit from it."

Banner: Detail of red racer snake | Photo: Santa Fe Lady, some rights reserved

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