It’s Rattlesnake Season

Topanga State Park snake that inspired the article. Photos by Suzanne Guldimann

“What kind of snake is that?” a visitor to Topanga State Park was heard to ask. She was pointing at an elegantly coiled reptile resting on a fallen tree less than a foot from the edge of a popular trail. 

She was told by another hiker that it was a gopher snake, but it wasn’t. It was a Southern Pacific rattlesnake, the Santa Monica Mountains’ only venomous reptile.

Although local rattlesnakes are active whenever the weather is warm enough, sometimes—even in the middle of winter—peak snake season begins in spring when sustained warm weather enables the reptiles to be active for longer periods of time.  

 “At this time of year in the Santa Monica Mountains, it’s not unusual to see a rattlesnake stretched out across the trail,” Natural History Museum of Los Angeles herpetologist Greg Pauly told the Messenger Mountain News. He explained that they like to take advantage of man-made clearings like fire roads and trails to warm themselves in the sun. 

Pauly is the assistant curator of herpetology for the museum and one of the organizers of the NHM’s citizen science reptile program, Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals). He recommends that hikers stay on the trail and watch where they put their hands and feet.

“People go wandering around with headphones on,” he said. “The rattler is a polite snake, it tries to warn you by rattling. If you’re listening to music you won’t hear it. In reality, they’re pretty shy and use their camouflage not to be seen. They only strike as a last resort,” said Pauly.

The California Center for Poison Control receives only around 300 rattlesnake bite reports a year, and only a few result in fatalities. 

Pauly points out that there is a six times greater chance of dying from a lightning strike or a dog attack, and a 95 times greater risk of being killed falling off a ladder. 

That doesn’t mean a rattlesnake bite isn’t a serious and potentially fatal medical emergency. A Del Mar woman nearly died in March after being bitten on the ankle by a rattlesnake while gardening. The local media reported that the victim spent nearly a week in the ICU. 

A 2014 study of Southern Pacific rattlesnake venom, led by University of Queensland Associate Professor Bryan Fry, found that different populations of the species can have venoms of differing potency.

Fry’s team described it as “one of the most medically significant snake species in all of North America, a clinician’s nightmare,” because the common antivenin is not always effective. Bite victims may require a costly cocktail of hard-to-get antivenins or even multiple transfusions. 

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake venom contains a powerful hemotoxin that can cause internal bleeding, damage the heart and lead to organ failure and necrosis. Fry’s research confirms that some populations of the species also inject a neurotoxin. In all cases, severe swelling is common and can be life threatening. Immediate emergency medical treatment is essential.

Most accidental bites occur when the victim steps on an unseen snake or reaches a hand into the snake’s hiding place under a stone or woodpile, or in grass or brush. Rattlesnakes have been known to seek shelter under lawn furniture, laundry and even in shoes. Looking before leaping—or even before sitting, is recommended in snake country.

Rattlesnake wrangler Bo Slypich has seen every imaginable kind of rattlesnake hiding place. He gets called to remove snakes from all kinds of locations, ranging from under the living room sofa to inside the bathroom wastebasket. 

Slypich, a Calabasas resident, was once called to check the gas range in a local family’s kitchen. “They called the gas company,” Slypich told the Mountain News. “The lady from the gas company came out, moved the stove, and told them, ‘you don’t have a gas leak, you have a rattlesnake.’”

Both Pauly and Slypich recommend that homeowners make sure they aren’t accidentally attracting rattlesnakes by creating inviting habitat like brush piles, scrap lumber piles or standing water. 

Slypich also suggests installing screens on all doors and windows, making sure small holes and openings are sealed, and closing doors at night.

“They really don’t want to have anything to do with us, but if the doors are open they’ll come into the house,” Slypich said. 

Slypich says he relocates the snakes he removes, or provides them for educational programs like dog safety training. “I never kill them, and I won’t sell them,” he said. “They’re God’s creatures.”

The National Park Service lists 14 species of snake in the area, but the two most frequently encountered are the rattlesnake and the gopher snake. These two species can appear similar at first glance. 

The Southern Pacific rattlesnake has a large, diamond-shaped head, and eyes with vertical pupils. Some rattlesnakes are nearly black, others have a vivid pattern of yellow or buff and brown. 

Young snakes are slender and have a black mask over their eyes. Adults can grow to be massive—more than four feet long, with thick bodies and stubby tails.

The gopher snake similar markings to a rattlesnake but a round pupil and a smaller head.

Gopher snakes share similar coloring with rattlesnakes and will sometimes attempt to mimic them, in an effort to convince predators to leave them alone. However, they have small, narrow heads and their eyes have round pupils, although a dark mark under each eye can create the illusion of a vertical pupil. 

There’s an old saying that if you’re close enough to tell a rattlesnake from a gopher snake by the shape of its pupil, you’re probably too close. 

“The majority of snakebites occur when people put themselves in harm’s way and try to interact with the snake,” Pauly said. “Don’t get within striking distance and you won’t be bitten. Be happy that you saw a rattlesnake,” he added. “Most people don’t live in a place where they get to see wildlife.” He recommends taking a photo from a safe distance and walking away without engaging the snake. 

That’s exactly what happened with the Topanga State Park snake that inspired this story. The hikers admired it, photographed it and left it alone. It was just part of an amazing day in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Participate in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles’ citizen science projects like RASCals, or learn more about native species like the Southern Pacific rattlesnake at

More information on Bo Slypich is available at He can be reached 24/7 for rattlesnake-related emergencies at (818) 383-0476.

The shy rattlesnake will warn first by rattling its tail.
Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is an author, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She has worked as a journalist reporting on local news and issues for more than a decade, and is the author of nine books of music for the harp. Suzanne's newest book, "Life in Malibu", explores local history and nature. She can be reached at

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