Finding the Rattlesnake That Lost its Rattle

The thick vegetation covering rocky Isla Santa Catalina, full of great hiding places for the rare rattlesnake. Photograph by David Braun.

Isla Santa Catalina, Gulf of California — It’s the first day of our weeklong expedition through the iconic desert islands of the southern part of the Gulf of California. I’m accompanying the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration on a field inspection to review the research it funds in this important part of the world, and to assess for itself the effects of coastal resort development and climate change on the numerous fragile ecosystems that span the ocean and land.

Sven-Olaf Lindblad, the president of Lindblad Expeditions, is our chief guide. He offers us three activities ashore this first day: snorkeling, a tour of the region’s stunning botany, with special focus on the world’s largest cactus, or to join the search for a very rare reptile, the Santa Catalina rattlesnake, listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered because of its highly restricted range, its limited food source, and that it has been possibly over-collected by the reptile trade. Most of its diet is limited to a single rodent species, an endemic mouse that is the only ground mammal on the island.

What’s particularly special about this snake, Lindblad tells us, is it is the only rattlesnake in the world that lost its rattle. “Ive been to Santa Catalina perhaps a hundred times,” Lindblad says, “but I haven’t seen this snake more than four or five times.” He offers to pay $100 for each rattlesnake seen by those who will look for it.

I’m more into plants than snakes, I think, and if the chances of actually seeing this rattler are so slim, I should probably tag along on the botany tour. But then Jonathan Losos, the CRE’s reptile expert puts up his hand enthusiastically. He definitely wants to look for the snake.

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