I haven't been bitten by a rattlesnake, except in nightmares. Once in southeast Arizona it was close. For some reason I was about to clamber up a small rock face. It was hot, and insects were buzzing, and it suddenly struck my companion that one insect buzzing on the rock face might actually be a snake. Indeed, a very small rattlesnake on a very small ledge was issuing a warning so small that I had taken it for a bug's advertisement.
I have been threatened by other rattlesnakes, but never at biting distance. Several times I have been part of a team making a rattler get off a nice warm back-country road where it was planning to bake for a while. Those snakes tended to rattle savagely when chased into the chilly brush, not realizing that we were trying to save their lives.
But rattlesnakes appear in my nightmares sometimes, and they are ferocious then, biting repeatedly, biting multiple persons, biting the worst possible body parts.
Since when I am mooching around rattlesnake country, I am usually wearing jeans, and subject to the derision of shorts-wearers, I was interested to learn that jeans provide partial protection against snakebite. Shelton Herbert and William Hayes, of Loma Linda University, writing in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, describe an experiment in which they induced rattlesnakes to bite “model human limbs” and measured the amount of venom injected if the limb was bare or covered with denim.
The model human limbs were latex household gloves filled with warm water and dangled from a snake hook. There were 15 rattlesnakes, large and small. Each session began with 5 seconds of “noncontact harassment,” type unspecified. (Waving the snake hook? Stamping on the ground? Taunting?) Then the model limb was thrust near the snake. They did this until the snake bit the model once, or until fifteen minutes had passed.
Snakes are all different. Two snakes couldn't be bothered to bite at all. Five times a snake managed to get in two bites before they whipped away the glove. (Auditioning to be in my nightmares.)
Anyway, it turns out that denim makes it harder for rattlers to inject venom. About two-thirds harder. They still bit, but less venom got in. It sounds like their fangs got stuck. A lot of venom just came out on the denim. And the small snakes often didn't manage to inject venom at all. Perhaps there were “kinematic difficulties associated with venom delivery.”
“Wearing long denim pants as an alternative to shorts may provide a simple, low-cost means of reducing the severity of snakebites,” say Herbert & Hayes.
Yay! (Although there are so many details missing in this paper. What kind of denim? Brand new? Stone washed? Acid washed? We're not talking jeggings, are we?)
Herbert & Hayes speculate that the “protective effect might be even greater for the comparatively short-fanged elapid and venomous colubrid snakes, which warrants further study.” I am too busy to take up the torch and do that study, so let's just hope jeans thwart them too.
Let no one tell you that jeans are not appropriate attire for every event. It is unlikely that you will encounter a bitter, frightened, or unhappy rattlesnake in most places, but it is still nice to know that you are prepared if you do.
I intend to wear jeans in my dreams from now on.