I am Mike Cardwell, a wildlife biologist who uses radiotelemetry to study the behavior and ecology of wild rattlesnakes.
Fascinated with wildlife as a teenager in southern California’s Mohave Desert, I got to know rattlesnakes as shy and intriguing animals that commanded respect due to their dangerous bite. At the same time, I became frustrated as I learned that Mohave rattlesnakes, in particular, were the subject of an incredible number of irrational myths that were passionately believed by most other people. As I tried to educate myself in order to dispel the myths, I discovered that the species’ behavior and natural history had not been well studied. Although much research had been carried out on Mohave Rattlesnake venom, nobody had studied the private lives of the animals themselves – so I set out to do it.
I continued to pursue the scholarly study of rattlesnakes during a thirty-two-year law enforcement career, including the first long-term field study of Mohave rattlesnakes, which was prominently featured in Animal Planet’s Venom ER television series (2004). After retirement from law enforcement, I turned data from that study into a Master of Science degree from California State University Sacramento with a thesis on the behavior of Mohave rattlesnakes during drought.
Along the way, I was able to document the reproductive ecology of Mohave rattlesnakes (2008, Journal of Zoology), co-edited The Biology of Rattlesnakes, a 600-page compilation of research by 90
authors (2008, Loma Linda University Press), and served on the expert panel that revised snakebite treatment guidelines for the United States and Canada (2015, Wilderness and Environmental Medicine). Working with colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, we redescribed the “type specimen” of the Mohave rattlesnake, ending more than a hundred years of confusion (2013, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington).
I am now an adjunct researcher in Rulon Clark's lab at San Diego State University, studying the behavior of wild rattlesnakes in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, where I am keenly interested in the geographic variation of Mohave rattlesnake venom and why the venom is different in different populations - even though they constantly interbreed and exchange DNA. I also serve as a consulting biologist with the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center as they strive to tease out the causes of variation in rattlesnake bite effects and how to treat them effectively. In the process, I am collecting venom samples and documenting behavioral traits of Mohave rattlesnakes, mostly in the "venom-B" portion of their range; that is, in the area where the snakes produce venom full of tissue-destroying metalloproteinase and lack the potent neurotoxin for which the species is famous. And I have recently published a non-technical book on Mohave rattlesnakes (see below).