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 News.bytesNews.bytes Extra, issue 445

A long and sidewinding road

thumbnail photo of rattlesnakes piled upon one another in a culvert pipeIn BLM-California News.bytes issue 444 (Aug. 19, 2010), our Wildlife Trivia Question of the Week concerned rattlesnakes. Almost as an afterthought, I linked to an old web page with an "interesting" photo of rattlesnakes in a culvert.

That web page (warning: link not safe for ophidiophobes -- those with a snake phobia) was from the July 2, 2002 issue of News.bytes (issue 66).  It included a photograph purportedly taken by a BLM work crew in northern California. The photo showed rattlesnakes piling on one another in a culvert.

This time around, the photo brought a quick email response from Sean Barry, campus biological safety office at UC Davis:

Snakes and especially heavy-bodied snakes such as western diamondback rattlers, would never pile up like that under natural conditions and the species is wrong for anywhere in California except the extreme southeastern part of the state, very far from Jelly's Ferry.

What's more:

I’ve seen that same photo many times before, variously credited to BLM, USFS, the Park Service, Texas work crews, Arizona work crews, California work crews, wandering naturalists, and others -- it’s a FAKE! Sorry for being so blunt but I’m concerned that the fake photo ended up in a government document and was accorded some credibility.

A smaller copy of the photo appears on Snopes.com – a website well known for debunking Internet rumors and urban legends, and which I used often.  I thought we had the original photo.  The one on that old web page almost looks like a scan of a printed photo -- but if so, I don't have the print.

Mr. Barry suggests the photo may have come from…

 …a rattlesnake roundup of the sort still conducted in Texas and Oklahoma (both of which are within the range of the western diamondback rattler).

Gary Diridoni, wildlife and fisheries biologist for the BLM Redding Field Office, concurs:

Sean Barry is correct, it is a fake photo, likely associated with a rattlesnake roundup. We contacted the work crew members trying to ascertain where the photo originated from when this past issue of Newsbytes came out. It seems it was passed on from a Caltrans crew to our crew and was supposedly from a culvert off of Highway 36 in Tehama County. Regardless, it seems that is was pulled from the web and passed around, ultimately winding up at the state office and now Newsbytes. Those western diamondbacks definitely do not occur within our field office boundary.

I have contacted Snopes.com with an update/correction, since they linked to our web page.

And so I don't inadvertently create the need for more corrections:  The title of this item should not be taken literally. The sidewinder is Crotalus cerastes -- the rattlesnakes in the infamous "culvert photo" are not sidewinders but western diamondback rattlers, Crotalus atrox.

- Your News.bytes editor, 8/26/10

Last updated: 08-26-2010