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Species Spotlight

Madera Canyon Snakes

By Doug Moore

   At this time of year, temperatures often fluctuate widely from day to day. But as the seasons progress toward spring, the colder days rapidly abate and overall warming gradually awakens the canyon from the hold of winter. Already this year, warm sunny days are prompting leaves to pop out on shrubs and rousing wildflowers along the Proctor Loop to consider blooming. Warm days also mean that many canyon animals become more active and start me wondering when I will see my first snake.

   Madera Canyon, with bajada and foothills below, supports an impressive species list of snakes. Approximately 30 species reside in the many habitats and plant communities between the Santa Cruz River Valley and the peaks of the Santa Rita Mountains. They vary widely in size, coloration, and life habits. Local snakes range in size from small earthworm-like Western Threadsnakes that max out at 15 inches long to large, muscular Gophersnakes that can top six feet in length. Many species, such as rattlesnakes, Glossy Snakes, and Nightsnakes, sport cryptic hues of earth tones and blotches that blend with their surroundings. In contrast, other species like Arizona Mountain Kingsnakes, Sonoran Coralsnakes, and Long-nosed Snakes are brightly colored and strikingly marked.

   Gophersnakes are versatile generalists found in every biotic community in the Santa Ritas. They are often found out during the day, but become nocturnal during hot weather. Primarily a rodent predator, this non-poisonous constrictor also eats lizards, other snakes, birds, and raids nests for eggs. Twin-spotted Rattlesnakes, one of the three small mountain rattlesnake species found in Madera Canyon, are specialists restricted mainly to rocky talus piles on the highest slopes of the canyon. Primarily out during the day, these poisonous pit vipers chiefly eat lizards, but will also take small mammals and birds.

   Species, like Coachwhip, Sonoran Whipsnake, and Eastern Patch-nosed Snake are diurnal, active and feeding during the day. Western Lyresnakes and Yaqui Black-headed Snakes are some of our local serpents that are primarily nocturnal. Many rattlesnakes, Common Kingsnakes, and other species take advantage of seasonal temperatures- diurnal during the mild temperatures of spring and fall, then becoming nocturnal as summer temperatures soar.

   Few animals elicit such strong emotional responses from humans as do snakes. But- love ‘em, hate ‘em or terrified of ‘em - it is important for everyone to realize that snakes are integral to the environment, in need of protection and preservation. Snakes are amazing examples of evolutionary design and adaptation. Many species, like Arizona Mountain Kingsnakes and Green Ratsnakes, are becoming rare in the wild and should not be collected! Captive-bred snakes are available for hobbyists that want to keep them.

   In the coming warmer days, snakes crossing the road up to Madera Canyon will be your best chance to see a wild one. Wildlife does not fair well with roads and high-speed vehicles, so drive reasonably, be aware and keep a sharp look-out. Live snakes are much more interesting to observe than flat, dead ones!!

Arizona Mountain Kingsnake - Willem Van Kempen