When a resident on Iron Springs Road near Fairfax was bitten by a rattlesnake last week as temperatures soared, it served as a reminder that the potentially deadly reptile is once again active in Marin.
"It is the weather, the heat that brings them out," said Melanie Piazza, director of animal care at WildCare in San Rafael. "They need the warmth to regulate their body temperatures, so that's why you sometimes see them out on rocks and trails."
Officials declined to describe the circumstances of last week's incident, handled by paramedics who treated the woman and took her to the hospital. But they noted that the warm spring is also the time the northern Pacific rattlesnake's food sources — rats, mice, voles and other creatures — are active. Rattlers tend to hide in tall grass, rock and wood piles and they can be found throughout the county, from Novato to Mount Tamalpais and West Marin, according to WildCare.
While it's always a bit frightening to see a rattlesnake, the species serves a crucial role in the environment, said WildCare spokeswoman Alison Hermance.
"They are an important part of the ecosystem because they control rodents," she said. "And they give you a warning when they rattle. If you just leave them alone they go on their way."
Rattlesnake bites usually occur when the snake and human run into each other accidentally.
"They like to rest underneath logs and sometimes people won't see them there,"
There are roughly 800 bites in California each year with one to two deaths, according to the California Poison Control Center. Most bites occur between April and October when snakes and humans are most active outdoors. About 25 percent of the bites are "dry," meaning no venom is injected. But they still require medical treatment.
Sometimes, it the rattlesnakes that become victims. Each year, WildCare sees about 10 rattlesnakes brought in for care; often they have been caught on garden or deer fencing. WildCare recommends leaving a small gap at the bottom of fencing allowing the snakes to pass.
Aside from rattlesnakes, garter, gopher, the western yellow belly and the sharp-tailed are among snakes seen in Marin. Gopher snakes mimic the rattlesnake in that they coil and hiss when threatened, but they are not venomous.
A rattlesnake can be identified by its heavy body and blunt tail, with one or more rattles on the tail, according to the state Department of Fish and Game. It has a triangular-shaped head, much broader at the back than at the front. The rattlesnake also has openings between the nostrils and eyes that sense heat.
Hikers should step on logs and rocks, rather than over them, to allow an opportunity to check for snakes on the other side. People should be especially careful when gathering firewood, as snakes like to hide under branches and logs.
Warm-weather hikers are advised to stick to well-used trails and wear over-the-ankle boots and loose-fitting long pants. They should not step or put their hands where they cannot see and avoid hiking in the dark. Dogs also should be kept on leash.