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. (Related post: National Geographic Undertakes Science Expedition to the Gulf of California)
Sven-Olaf Lindblad, the president of Lindblad Expeditions, is our chief guide. He offers three activities ashore: 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. The snake is 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 pet 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, to be honest, and if the chances of actually seeing this rattler are that 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.
I change my mind and put my name down for the search party, because I guess that if anyone has a chance of finding the snake it must be this distinguished Harvard professor, author of more than a hundred scientific papers and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Besides, I have a hunch that hunting for a rare snake alongside Jonathan would probably make for a blog post a lot more interesting than writing about plants, no matter how big they are.
A handful of us join our Lindblad naturalist, Adrian Cerda Ardura, an expert in endangered species management, and a specialist in reptiles who worked for two years as a herpetologist on the islands of the Sea of Cortez. Clearly, Sven Lindblad assigned his best snake expert to this particular task; I believe he really wants us to see the rattlesnake, even if it costs him $100.
Adrian begins by telling us how honored he is that he is showing Professor Losos around the island. He has studied the works written by Jonathan and is familiar with his papers. Then he briefs us about the island’s thick, thorny vegetation and gives us tips on where to look for the elusive rattlesnake. We’re not allowed to trample or disturb anything, and we must call him if we see anything we think might be what we’re looking for.
We fan out in search of the reptile, keeping in mind that this is the one rattlesnake that does not rattle, so there will be no audible warning if we somehow come close to stepping on it.
Professor Losos ranges deep into the brush; I don’t go too far from the sandy dry creek that serves as a footpath — I’d like plenty of visual distance between me and a rattlesnake. I do like snakes, but only when they are securely in their realm, and definitely not within striking distance of my space.
Adrian heads for a a small rocky outcrop, peers into a crevice and says, “this is just the kind of place where snakes like to hide during the day.” But there’s no reptile in residence this day, so Adrian changes direction and heads directly for a small ridge. He climbs onto a ledge and peers behind a rock. “I’ve got one,” he announces. It has taken maybe ten minutes to find one of the rarest snakes on the planet.
We take turns to peer at the famous snake in its hideout. It’s a beautiful shade of light grey with a clear pattern. It lies motionless in a tight coil. Adrian decides to gently ease the reptile out of its hole so we may get a better look at it.
With a lace he pulls out of his boot he somehow lassos the reptile around its middle then uses his bare hands deftly to lift the animal into the air before it knows what’s happening. The snake is surprisingly docile. Not only has it lost its rattle, it seems, but also its aggression, although it is clearly nervous of all the strange giant warm bodies, and its tongue stabs the air constantly to get a sense of what’s going on.
Adrian and Jonathan give us a brief talk about how living on an island for countless millennia without having to warn ungulates to not trample it gradually caused this species of rattlesnake to lose the rattle at the end of its tail. We make our photos and video then stand aside to allow the rattlesnake to return to its rocky hideout.
Watch Jonathan Losos talk about the rattlesnake and explain how it came to lose its rattle:
For a brief while this particular snake served as an ambassador for its species, was much admired, photographed and discussed. And it left a bunch of humans impressed and sympathetic to its cause, which is to make sure that Isla Santa Catalina is protected for as long as possible for this unique and rare animal and the many other species that have evolved and adapted to its very special island home.
Watch Adrian Cerda talk about the elusive Santa Catalina rattlesnake:
- Committee for Research and Exploration (includes grant application process)
- Photo Gallery: Most Endangered Animals of 2007 Announced
- Life in the Gulf of California Hope Spot (National Geographic Voices, 2015)
- The “Aquarium of the World” at Risk (Ocean Views post by Enric Sala, 2011)
- National Geographic Expeditions Baja Cruise Itineraries
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.