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by Jim Lowery, Earth Skills

Buzzworm is an old western term for rattlesnake.

    Too many people have asked us what to do about rattlesnake bites recently, that a while ago I began looking at first aid guides to compare what they said. I also picked up a classic book by Laurence Klauber called Rattlesnakes. Their Habits, Life Histories & Influence on Mankind. In my file drawer was an old clipping from the New York Times about new pit viper research, and a flyer on snakebites from a Sierra Club section. Pretty soon I had run across so much conflicting advice about snakebite treatment - do you use those suction devices or not, do you constrict the bitten limb or not, and so forth and so on - that I decided to prepare something for Dirt Times on the latest thinking in this matter.
    This led me to some phone calls, first to a herpetologist friend who sent me more information, to USC Medical School looking for an authority on snake bite venom, who it turns out had "retired and gone to Arizona looking for snakes." This search eventually led me to interview a rattlesnake specialist at the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, which is connected with research on the forefront of snake bite treatment.
    What resulted was a dizzying array of contentions, medical terms I could not pronounce nor understand, and fascinating new research about rattlesnake adaptations, mating behaviour and so forth. Clearly I had bitten off more than I could chew. The information I share will be useful and interesting. (Recommended bite treatment is changing and most first aid guides are now out of date.)
    Besides, the more we understand about rattlesnakes, the more we appreciate them. A couple of years ago we encountered a boy scout in the Sierras who told us excitedly his troop had seen a rattlesnake and the troop leader had killed it. I cringed and made a face, whereupon the boy said, "Well, you know, he's kind of a macho guy." Unless the others were as discriminating about their role model, thirty boys now thought that killing a snake for no reason was the thing to do. There is a lot of teaching we must all do.

First aid for a rattlesnake bite
Getting to the point of my most urgent curiosity, the field treatment of a rattlesnake bite is very simple. Keep the victim calm, and get him or her to a hospital as soon as you can even if symptoms aren't severe right away. If you are alone and are bitten, walk slowly to where someone can help you. If the victim is many hours away from a hospital, arrange for air evacuation.
    Some things not to do: Do not apply ice or cold packs, Do not make incisions and suck out venom with your mouth or with a suction device. Don't apply a tourniquet, Ace bandage or other constricting device. Don't kill the snake and bring it in.
    If you are like me, you will now wonder why you carried a snake bite kit with you for all those years. Maybe you are disappointed that there isn't much for you to do in the event of a rattlesnake bite except to go get help. Maybe the idea that you can't do anything offends your ego. All I can say is that I discovered there are very specific reasons for all of these do's and don'ts. Basically, Dr. Willis Wingert, who studied rattlesnake bites at County-USC Medical Center for many years and is the co-author of a standard guide used by hospitals, convinced me by explaining that in all the bite cases he examined, there was "no difference in the severity due to the kind of first aid given to the victim." He told me that suction devices were "worthless," constriction of the bitten limb was "worthless", and splinting the bitten limb merely "gave others something to do without having a negative impact."
    Studying ten years' of rattlesnake bites that came into the County-USC hospital, Wingert also found some interesting patterns that suggest who gets bitten and why. Eighty percent of bites were on the hands and only fifteen percent on the legs or feet. Forty percent of the victims were drunk. The vast majority of victims were males between 20 and 30. Judy McNally, Assistant Director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center - which sees 350 snake bites cases every year - told me "fifty to seventy percent of the bite cases are from people molesting or harassing a snake. The typical bite is a guy driving down the road with a bottle of Jack Daniels, sees a snake on the road, gets out and tries to beat it with a stick."
    For those who aren't familiar with rattlesnakes, they are not aggressive creatures unless they are harassed or threatened. (Even then, McNally avoids using the word "aggressive," calling it "highly defensive.") However, note that stepping on or very near a snake constitutes threat. Bites can happen without a warning rattle, and without the snake being in a coiled position. To avoid snake bites, watch where you walk and put your hands, and stay two snake lengths away from a rattlesnake if you see it. The rattlesnake's bite is from one-third to one-half of its length.
    McNally explained that a new antivenin is now being tested which may make the treatment of snakebites easier. Currently, as many as 85% of snakebite victims are allergic to the horse serum proteins in the antivenin, so many victims are not treated at all and are merely monitored. The new antivenin - probably at least two years away - will be much purer, and may eventually allow antivenin to be available at ranger stations and other outlying posts, McNally says. Most snakebite victims, incidentally, fully recover.
    I asked McNally what to do if a victim is in the backcountry; when would an air evacuation be called for? He said, "The bottom line is do the thing that takes the least time to get help," That may mean the victim walks out with his/her companion, slowly, if it's faster than the victim being carried out.

Heat Sensors
    In addition to two oval eyes, the rattlesnake has two heat sensors on its face; these are the "pits" that characterize these snakes as "pit vipers". The pits allow the snake to see a double (i.e. stereoscopic) heat image of what is in front of it, probably superimposed upon the eye's visual image. The shape, size and intensity of the heat image will differentiate to the snake whether the object in front of it is a potential prey or enemy. Rattlesnakes can sense heat variations as small as .003 degrees C.
    Imagine slithering around seeing a world of "auras" wherever you slither. Here's a little edible one, oh here's a rabbit aura (could I swallow it?), and ... whooaa! what is this, as you are overpowered by the aura of a huge sweating life form five or six feet high lunging toward you on two legs. No wonder rattlesnakes developed rattles.
    The snake, by the way, has no ears and so lives in a world of image, smell and ground vibration. Its smell, assisted by the flicking tongue bringing molecules across a sensory organ, is so advanced that it can unerringly follow the prey it has bitten to its place of death. Researchers have diluted the smell a hundred fold, and the snake still follows it with out a problem.
    Another interesting rattlesnake fact is that a male prairie rattler, when looking for a female to mate with, slithers in a line that is 99% straight (going around obstacles when necessary but returning to his route). Computer simulations confirmed that yes, this is smart behavior because the most efficient way to find a randomly dispersed object is to travel in a straight line. No rock or crevice hopping for this serious animal.

    Speaking of movement, rattlesnakes have four distinctive manners of locomotion (or gaits!), according to Laurence Klauber in the above-mentioned book. "Horizontal undulatory progression" is the common slither in which the snake transfers horizontal motion into longitudinal motion. In a track you would see earth or pebbles moved as the body goes from side to side. "Rectilinear progression" involves the bunching up and releasing of muscles and skin along the longitudinal axis. This is a more unhurried method which you may picture by imagining a boa or python moving along. Then there is "sidewinding," which must be seen to be believed, and finally "concertina progression," in which the snake contracts its body into a wavy curve, then straightens it out and repeats the process. This is used for a slow, hesitating advance.
    Having read this I now can see how an enthusiastic tracker could follow and interpret a rattlesnake's hunting route if he or she is willing to enter the amazing world of micro pressure releases and seeing heat images!

Rattlesnake Bite Treatment

1.  Get away from the snake to avoid another bite. Calm the victim, then get him/her to a hospital without delay, keeping the victim's exertion to a minimum.
Why:  Even a small bite without immediate symptoms can develop into a serious case later. A hospital can administer antivenin if necessary and monitor the patient's condition. Most deaths that occur are due to lack of treatment or improper treatment.
2.  Do not treat wound area with cold pack or ice.
Why not:  Cold does not slow the action of peptides and some enzymes in rattlesnake venom, but it does inhibit the human body's antibody formation and constricts blood vessels, further damaging tissue.
3. Do not make incisions to suck out venom. Newer suction devices may be used.
Why not: Older snakebite kits with a scalpel remove at most 10% to 15% of the venom, require tedious work that delays getting the victim to a hospital, and can cause nerve and tissue damage. The newer "Extractor venom pump" which looks like a syringe removes no more than 30% of the venom and can be used in seconds. Its impact is not negative, but is not necessarily that positive either. Suction must occur within three minutes of the bite to be effective at all.
4. Do not apply a tourniquet or constriction band around the bitten area. You may splint a bitten arm to keep it immobile.
Why not: There is no evidence that constriction bands influence the outcome of a snakebite, and they may mask the severity of the bite, leading the underestimation of the amount of antivenin needed. Most first-aiders make the constriction far too tight, possibly causing permanent limb damage.
5. Do not kill the snake and bring it in.
Why not: It can be dangerous to try killing the snake, and wastes precious time. There are only two antivenins for North America: one for all pit vipers including all rattlesnakes, and one for coral snakes. Although potency of venom varies with species of rattlesnake, it also varies among populations of the same species and between juveniles and adults. An individual snake may inject a little or a lot of venom. Therefore, the hospital doesn't need to know the species. Note that a dead snake or even a detached head can bite by reflex action hours after death.

Recommended treatment has changed recently. These recommendations come from interviews with experts knowledgeable about the latest studies of treatment. Compiled in 1993.

Some Rattlesnake Facts

Species in Southern California include the Western Rattlesnake, Western Diamondback, Mojave Rattlesnake, Red Diamond Rattlesnake, Sidewinder and Speckled Rattlesnake.

In the U.S., fewer people die of snakebite each year than from bathtub mishaps, lightening bolts, insect stings or bubonic plague.

A rattlesnake may go up to six months between meals.

A rattlesnake's markings are adapted for camouflaged ambush of prey and for the rattlesnake's own safety. As soon as it moves, a rattlesnake is easily seen. Snakes with vertical bands, in contrast - like the coral snake - are easily seen while still, but are harder to pinpoint when moving because the stripes create an optical illusion.

A rattlesnake will add a segment each time the snake sheds its skin, which may be several times per year. Counting the rattle segments therefore doesn't reveal the snake's age.

Excerpted with permission from Dirt Times (Spring 1993)

From In the Tracks of the Tracker magazine, Winter-Spring 1994
There's more articles from In the Tracks of the Tracker magazine on the Tracker Trail website.