I understand that many people have phobias, and I am no exception, but some of my favorite creatures found at Saguaro National Park are sorely under appreciated. The Monsoon rains flood cracks and crevices forcing a great many insects out into the open and a variety of predators venture out of their hiding places eager snatch them up. The Frogs awaken from their summer slumber to swim, mate and feast with abandon. The Tarantulas are out and about too! So cute, so fuzzy, so big!
I realize that many folk would not be filled with glee to discover a tarantula pushing the Ladies Room door open, they would probably just empty their bladders in terror, but I grew up in the Sonoran Desert and have fond memories of playing with these robust spiders. We would carefully pick them up and let them run from one hand to the next tickling our fingers. Yes, tarantulas are venomous, but they have mild temperaments and if you are gentle they don’t get agitated. You just learn rather quickly to read their body language and when they are annoyed you leave them be.
Now I’m not advocating you pick up and play with all the docile venomous creatures here at the park. Far too many people get that idea already! The most popular toxic critters to be manhandled by ignorant tourist is the Gila Monster. Folks think these toothy beauties are just great for “selfies” and pick-up the slow moving reptiles so they can place them on their shoulders?!?! Eventually the poor lizard has enough of the paparazzi treatment and wanting to be put down lashes out with their only defense, it bites… HARD.
Often the only way to pry them off is by prying their jaws apart with a stick (which can leave broken teeth in the wound, not so good for either of you) or by submerging lizard and whatever limb it is attached to in water, so they have to let go to get air. Easiest method of the two is the soaking, but its seldom available when hiking in the desert. Not only do Gila Monsters have jaws like a steel trap, but once it latches on the vexed lizard releases a venom designed for maximum pain, the effects often lasting weeks.
I know this sounds absolutely terrifying but despite all the facts I’ve just given you, Gila Monsters really aren’t very dangerous. Gila Monsters spend over 80% of their lives asleep in burrows, only venturing out to eat quail eggs and baby mice (adult rodents are usually too fast for them.) Gila monsters are short legged, slow moving, and relatively docile (for a wild animal) , but they are wonderful muse for the naturalist photographers! Gila Monsters are protected from any handling by state law so even if you think your catch pole would work great for picking them up, you’ll just have to use a zoom lens for those close-ups.
Another Toxic resident of the Sonoran Desert is the Colorado River Toad, just like the Gila Monster they spend most of their lives underground, only coming out to hunt and mate during the monsoon season. However, unlike the Gila Monster these huge toads (the largest in the state) don’t have teeth so they won’t bite you. Colorado River Toads have a more passive method of defense; they have venom glands under their skin on the sides of their heads and hind legs. Their toxin is is reported to cause hallucinations, vomiting, (and if eaten) paralysis and death. Usually its dogs that are killed by either eating the toads or just licking them. Growing up our community killed these toads as soon as them were found on the property, but I know better now and feel terrible as their numbers are dwindling. Since 1986 there has been only one confirmed sighting along the Colorado River and they have nearly vanished in New Mexico.
Sadly Colorado River Toads aren’t the only wildlife to suffer as a result of urban encroachment and human misunderstanding. Unfortunately, rattlesnakes are often drawn into urban settings in their search for mice. So if you have a rattlesnake problem you really have a rodent problem and the snakes are there to help reduce the vermin population. many people kill a rattlesnake as soon as they find it on their property. By killing rattlesnakes which rattle prior to striking in droves and leaving the silent unmolested, we have inadvertently made an artificial selection with in the gene pool of rattlesnakes! After centuries of killing the rattlers, we have negatively affected their natural behavior! I have seldom heard a rattlesnake rattle in the wild.On three occasions I have nearly stepped on a silent rattlesnake, but thankfully I stopped short of injuring the animal and they returned the courtesy. Indeed, most snakes I have encountered are far more afraid of me than I am of them. Below are two species of rattlesnake I’ve encounter while working with the trail crew or volunteers in Saguaro National Park.
Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes are a common sight in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Over the years I’ve heard more then a few folks wonder aloud how on earth we Tucsonans could live here with so many deadly, toxic and thorny things surrounding us? True, the Sonoran Desert is home to many venomous creatures, (and we locals do joke that everything here wants to kill you including the plants) yet I have lived here my entire life without fear. Remember, WE ARE THE INVASIVE SPECIES not the desert wildlife.