First, I have added a link on the main menu to a new video (UC Santa Cruz Video). Bethany Augliere and Brendan Bane from the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program visited the EYNC Rattlesnake Study last May and recently posted the resulting video, which satisfies one of the requirements for their graduate degree program. I hope you enjoy it!
Back to baby rattlesnakes
As of 22 September, all three telemetered reproductive females (39, 53 and 75) had left their birthing shelters. Two are clearly hunting and the third is just a few feet away, being courted by a male.
Female 39 produced a brood in the same hollow log for the third year in a row. Then, immediately following the kids’ neonatal sheds on 14–15 September, she made a long move to the same place in the blackberry thicket on the other side of San Lorenzo Way – also for the third year in a row. As I observed last year, she apparently knows where to find a reliable meal after the kids leave the house!
Female 75 abandoned the ground squirrel burrow she had been in for weeks between 17 and 19 September and moved to a blackberry thicket near the Duck Pond. Although I never observed babies in the burrow with her, the tunnel was deep and she was sometimes out of sight of my three-foot-long Burrow Camera. After she left, however, a single neonatal shed “skin” was visible in the burrow and I recovered it yesterday. Hopefully, DNA from it will confirm that Female 75 produced a litter and reveal who the father was. Since multiple paternity is common in rattlesnake broods, the DNA from this skin will not identify the paternity of any other siblings.
Female 53 left her shelter in the stream bed between 19 and 22 September, moving only about 4 meters to another shelter where she is accompanied by a non-telemetered male, CROR 72 (green/yellow paint in his rattle). Note the postpartum skin fold in the frame shot (below) and then watch the brief video of the two rattlesnakes together. (click here)
The underground void that Female 53 just left remains occupied by an unmarked female with babies. You can see fresh neonate skins on top of and stuck to this female and it is difficult to tell if the kids in the video have shed yet. I suspect the recently shed skins belong to Female 53’s litter which has already departed and the remaining babies belong to the unmarked female. If I am right, these babies will remain with mom for a few days more. However, if the fresh sheds belong to them, they and their mother will be gone the next time I visit. It is important to remember that maternal accompaniment of neonate rattlesnakes has only been known since radiotelemetry has been used to study these animals. Watch the video here.
So it appears that the 2016 birthing season is nearly complete. People around the American River Parkway and other places where rattlesnakes live will be encountering baby rattlesnakes with some frequency between now and the onset of cold weather. But, at the size of pencils, the little guys have many predators and few of them survive until spring.
Just a quick post to let you know that as of last Saturday, 3 September, Females 39, 53 and 75 were all still visibly pregnant.
But yesterday afternoon, 6 September, a newborn baby was coiled in the hollow log where 39 and 53 had been on Saturday. I could not see the adults well enough to tell which one had given birth. There were undoubtedly other kids that were not visible. Since the neonates start a shed (ecdysis) cycle almost immediately after birth, which turns their eyes bluish-white, this one’s clear eyes indicate he is not very old.
As of Saturday, I could not see neonates in the burrow with Female 75.
Since my last post, I also came across the first Fall courtship. Early on 29 August, I came across an unmarked male courting Female 66, who is not pregnant this year and has been hunting all summer. A couple hours later, the apparently happy pair were copulating! Remember, these rattlesnakes have a bimodal courtship season: they court in the Spring, lay low during the hot months, and resume courtship in late Summer/Fall.
You may remember from my last post that pregnant Female 53 had made a surprising move of more than 220 yards near the end of August and was discovered, apparently by herself, in a small burrow at the edge of the river bottom. Interestingly, after monitoring her there for a week, she turned up back in the original refuge on 8 September. Although I have not been able to get a look at her with the BurrowCam, the burrow she was in for a week is empty and I have no reason to believe that she’s not still pregnant.
Then, last Thursday (September 10), I found three significant developments when I visited this same birthing refuge occupied by expecting Females 39, 47 and 53. First, Female 39 was gone, with a distant weak radio signal. Second, I finally got a direct look at some babies – either three of them or the same one three times, crawling around inside the refuge (photo below)! Interestingly, the one(s) I saw had shed; they were brightly marked and their little two-lobed rattle buttons were uncovered. That, of course, means that they were around 10–14 days old and ready to leave. And, third, one of the visible adults was jerking and chin-rubbing on Female 47 – sure signs of a courting male (click here for a courtship video). This guy had no paint in his rattle, so he’s new but he was inaccessible inside the shelter. But the fall portion of the courtship season has definitely begun.
Female 39 was already postpartum, so her departure was not surprising. But her offspring should have left (or be leaving) at the same time. The post-shed kid(s) I saw could have been her’s or Female 47’s. When I tracked down Female 39’s radio signal, she was in the blackberry thicket on the other side of San Lorenzo Way, laying in diffuse sunlight and sporting a very recent food bulge (just behind the U-shaped bend in her neck in the photo, below). Interestingly, this annually-reproducing female had her babies in the same refuge last year and, when she departed, she immediately made the same long move to the same spot in the same berry thicket – on 15 September 2014. Apparently this is the best place to find a good meal when you finally get the kids out of the house!
As of the morning of 14 September, all females except 53 had left their gestation shelters. I came across Female 47 crawling in the grass, so I maneuvered in front of her and shot some video as she crawled toward me. Although I remained motionless, I think she detected me as she got within two or three feet, because she started carrying a slight “S” bend in her neck, which I interpret as a defensive precaution in case she needed to strike and bite (when not feeling threatened, they usually extend the neck when crawling, as in the first half of the video). I was accidentally kneeling almost on top of a ground squirrel burrow and she dove into it when she found it. Click here to see the 28-second video.
A short time later, I found that Female 54 had also departed from her gestation refuge but had made it only a few dozen meters. Her partly eaten carcass was laying in the edge of a trail just a few feet from where an adult turkey had been killed and eaten a couple of weeks ago. Her blood had not yet coagulated and the exposed tissue was still moist and glistening. In recent weeks, I’ve frequently seen one or two of the now almost grown coyote pups in this area and there has been coyote scat everywhere. I have no doubt that one of them got her.
Then, at the shelter used for the past couple of months by Females 39, 47 and 53 – and still occupied by 53, I came across a freshly shed youngster a couple of feet outside of his birth refuge.
Assuming that Female 53 delivers a brood soon, our six monitored females will probably have contributed nearly 50 baby rattlesnakes to Effie Yeaw’s Nature Preserve (average litter size is 8). But remember that, on average over time in a stable population, a female rattlesnake (or any other species) only produces a replacement for herself and a mate in her lifetime that survive to reproduce themselves. Otherwise, the population increases or decreases.
The vast majority of offspring never live long enough to pass on their genes. Of course, there are cycles between predator and prey species. When predator numbers are up, they soon knock the prey population down, which eventually results in a reduction of predators as food becomes scarce. Then, as predator numbers decline, the prey population begins to increase again… and the saga continues. Remember what I’ve said before: it’s a violent world out there and Nature is a cruel mother; most wild creatures’ lives end in the jaws of another!
Just when you think you are beginning to understand rattlesnake behavior, they do something completely unexpected. But, of course, that’s exactly why we study them!
Compared to my previous observations of Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes, this year’s mothers and neonates are behaving very differently. For starters, during multiple seasons at my El Dorado Hills study site and last year at Effie Yeaw NC, newborn rattlesnakes basked in the entrance to their birth shelter, usually in the morning, with mom laying just behind them. With a stealthy approach, they were not difficult to photograph.
As of yesterday (6 September), 5 of 6 monitored females had had their babies but I have yet to actually lay my eyes on a youngster. The only images of kids so far this year are from videos made underground with the BurrowCam. In one case, Female 54 has been so far into a void under a large log that even the four-foot probe of the BurrowCam just reveals empty tunnel as far as the light illuminates. Yet, yesterday morning, she was outside for the first time in weeks and clearly no longer pregnant (photo below). Her kids are nowhere to be seen.
Two weeks ago, the radio signal from our Female 53, who had been stationary with two other pregnant females for over a month, disappeared. After searching for her for several days, I finally caught a faint signal and followed it more than 200 m (220 yards) to a small burrow in the soil where the BurrowCam revealed that she was alive and still pregnant. As of yesterday, she was still there and still appeared pregnant (photo below). Such a long move so late in her pregnancy is quite unusual.
Finally, we also had a litter born in a holding bucket; a less than ideal situation but it provided an opportunity to collect some data not otherwise possible to get. Female 41’s transmitter was due for replacement early in July (transmitters function for about 12 months) but she had already gone into her gestation refuge and remained inaccessible ever since. I had resigned myself to her transmitter probably failing any day and having to search for her after she left her babies, along with Males 36 and 37 (who currently carry prematurely-failed transmitters). Then, last Monday, I was surprised to find her outside of her refuge, so I recaptured her. I don’t do transmitter surgeries during late-term pregnancy, plus it was apparent that she was likely to give birth very soon, so I planned to replace her transmitter as soon as she delivered her kids.
I didn’t have long to wait. She delivered nine healthy babies very early Friday morning (photo below). Her transmitter was replaced on Saturday and she, along with her brood, were released into her gestation refuge yesterday morning.
Here’s the interesting data that resulted from this captive birth: Subtracting mom’s body mass a few hours after birth from her body mass the day before revealed that she had lost 37% of her pre-parturition body weight. Average body mass of the kids was just under 14 g (about 1/2 ounce). Total body mass of her brood was 88% of her lost body mass, meaning that about 12% of her lost weight is attributed to amniotic membranes, fluid, etc. It is important to note that these live births are more akin to the egg-laying process than to mammalian births. That is, there is no placenta; the female rattlesnake secretes a yolk for each embryo that nourishes that embryo as it grows without further contribution from mom. Each embryo is contained in a thin transparent sac, rather than a thick egg shell (see the third photo in my Rattle Growth post from 14 July – click here). In addition to the embryo, the sac is filled with amniotic fluid and membranes enclosing what’s left of the yolk and the embryo’s waste.
The lesson from Female 41’s transmitter running out of time while she was not accessible is this: in the future, I will replace transmitters in females in May, regardless of the remaining battery life. For fifteen years, I have simply replaced transmitters at 12 months but Mohave Rattlesnakes in the desert were not reclusive during pregnancy and I just happened to have avoided summer anniversary dates for transmitters in females during my El Dorado Hills work.
So there it is… now you can amaze your friends with more than they ever wanted to know about rattlesnake reproduction!
Checking on our pregnant female rattlesnakes this morning disclosed another brood of kids in a different location. These appear younger than the ones discovered with Female 55 last night because their eyes are not yet cloudy white. Although only one was observed with the BurrowCam (see 19 second video), it is almost certain that there are more. Eight is the average litter size for Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes. However, these kids are also deep underground and, like those found last night, have only been observed with the BurrowCam.
Clearly, there will be baby rattlesnakes roaming around the American River Parkway within a few days, and some may have already shed and emerged from their mothers’ gestation shelters. Remember, the lack of snow pack and low reservoir levels have not affected the rodents and lizards along the American River, so the rattlesnakes are fat and healthy. Click here for more on how drought affects rattlesnake behavior.
Remember that, while venomous and dangerous, bites from baby rattlesnakes tend to be far less dangerous than bites by medium and large rattlesnakes. Clinical data comparing bites by rattlesnakes of different sizes clearly shows that big rattlers are more dangerous. Click here for a PDF of “Large snake size suggests increased snakebite severity in patients bitten by rattlesnakes in southern California” (2010, Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 21:120–126).
The idea that babies are more dangerous is likely the most common rattlesnake myth. Regardless of how much of their venom babies inject, adult rattlesnakes have a lot more venom, so are capable of much worse bites. Think about it: laboratories that produce venom to sell to pharmaceutical companies and other research institutions do not want baby snakes, they want big snakes because they produce a lot more venom. Data from these labs indicate that the venom yield from three-foot rattlesnakes is 100X the yield from one-foot juveniles. The photos below are actual venom extractions from a nearly three-foot male (left) and a 13-inch newborn (right) Mohave Rattlesnakes. I’d take a bite from the little one rather than the adult any day!
So there will be little rattlesnakes, about the size of pencils, around wooded and brushy areas for the next couple of months. To be sure, while their bites are less dangerous than bites by bigger snakes, any rattlesnake bite requires evaluation in a hospital emergency department without delay. By spring, the babies will be much more scarce because the little guys have many more predators than the adults.
This is just a quick post to announce the first births that we know of this year among our Effie Yeaw Nature Center rattlesnakes. When we checked on non-telemetered Female 55 this evening (Tuesday, 1 September) with the BurrowCam, she looked pretty normal (see photo below). She certainly did not look like she had lost a lot of weight. And there were no babies on or around her.
But when I bent the BurrowCam around and pushed it deeper into the cavity behind her, at least two babies were spotted. What was surprising was that they are not brand new. Note the bluish eyes and rattle caps; these kids are several days old – maybe close to a week.
These little guys have never been near the opening to the refuge when I have looked. That’s very different behavior than what I have seen in the past. Click here to see the 1.75 minute video of the kids.
Female 41 from the same shelter is still pregnant and there’s no evidence of kids around the other pregnant females…but I missed these babies for several days! More to follow soon…
As birthing season approaches, I have been watching intently for signs of baby rattlesnakes. While postpartum mothers usually stay inside their shelters, the neonates are typically active and easily spotted. Although they do not leave their shelters before shedding the first time, babies can usually be seen crawling or basking at the entrance. And when we introduce the BurrowCam into the shelter, the kids can be seen exploring their new surroundings and crawling around on their mother. So far, there’s been no evidence of babies yet this year. This would be a bit early but quick warming last spring has me wondering about the potential for early births this year.
Remember that pregnant female rattlesnakes in our area hangout in carefully selected thermal shelters where they can maintain consistently warm body temperatures around the clock until they give birth. This period of thermoregulation lasts several months, during which the pregnant moms do not forage for food.
All five of our telemetered females are apparently pregnant, plus Female 55, who was processed and released without a transmitter in June (no transmitter surgery due to some old but significant trauma to her abdomen; click here for details). These females settled into their gestation shelters between 8 June and 1 July and have maintained body temperatures between 28ºC and 32ºC (82º–90ºF), almost without exception, ever since.
In fact, at dawn on a recent cool morning (16 August) when the ground temperature just before sunrise was in the mid-50s F, these girls still had body temps in the high 80s F. They maintain similar body temps during hot afternoons when the ground temperature (much hotter in the sun than air temp) outside is 120ºF and more. They thermoregulate like this by selecting logs or large rocks that have just the right thickness and sun exposure to stay warm at night but not get too hot in the afternoon sun. Such places are apparently scarce because three of our telemetered females are together in one shelter, while Female 41 is with non-telemetered Female 55 in another. Female 54 is in a third location, possibly by herself, but there could be others in there without radios. Females 39 and 41, both of whom produced broods in 2014, are in the same shelters as last year.
On 27 August, the BurrowCam revealed Female 39’s abdomen to be greatly distended, extending all the way to the cloaca. So maybe delivery of her 2015 brood is not far off? The frame grab (below) from the BurrowCam video shows her abdominal scales pulled far apart. In the 50-second video (watch here), you’ll see what I see when we thread the BurrowCam into a passage. Female 39 is identified by red/blue (red-over-blue) paint in her rattle and the edge of another dark gray rattlesnake appears to be visible under 39’s coils. Known to be behind her in the passage (because of their radio signals) are Females 47 and 53, as well as Male 46. Additionally, in recent days, I have seen non-telemetered (and non-pregnant) Female 48 (green/green) and Male 36 (red/red; carrying a failed transmitter) in this log. It’s a popular place this time of year!
As you may recall, Males 36 and 37 have been missing for months since their transmitters failed prematurely in September and December, respectively. Until last week, Male 36 had been last seen on the BurrowCam in a hollow log courting postpartum Female 41 on 2 October 2014, and I last saw Male 37 as his tail disappeared down a hole on 7 March 2015. There had been no sign of either of them since until a fellow photographer and herpetologist I encounter frequently at Effie Yeaw showed me a photo of Male 37 (IDed by his yellow/red rattle marking) crossing a trail on 20 August! Then, just 5 days later, while checking for babies in the shelter with Females 39, 47 and 54, and Male 46, I was surprised to see Male 36’s red/red rattle. (See photos below) So both are alive and well… but both still elude recapture.
Earlier today, 29 August, I found Male 46 coiled in poison oak dozens of meters away from the log where he has been hanging out with the three pregnant girls continuously for the past two weeks. It is likely he has been chased off by a larger male, so maybe Male 36 is still in there. This refuge has a narrow deep passage that is nearly impossible to thread the BurrowCam into and, even when successful, I can usually only see whichever rattlesnake is closest to the top (for example, the 50-second video of Female 39, with the link earlier in this post).
So Baby Watch continues and I still hope to recapture missing Males 36 and 37.
Now is the perfect time for this discussion because the Effie Yeaw rattlesnakes have been shedding like crazy. Since the end of spring courtship about two months ago, the pregnant females have hunkered down to thermoregulate at optimum gestation temperature while the males and non-reproductive females have been hunting with far less attention to temperature control. All have been shedding over the past few weeks.
If you haven’t yet read my description of the shedding process near the end of my last post, do so now; the following discussion will make much more sense with that background.
Because the corneal layer of the skin does not grow, shedding (or ecdysis) is a recurring process throughout a scaled reptile’s life. Like other animals, baby snakes grow rapidly, so they must replace the corneal layer frequently to accommodate rapidly expanding bodies. Since shedding frequency is highly correlated with growth rate, juveniles usually shed several times per year. Growth rate and shedding frequency slows with size and age, with large adult rattlesnakes sometimes shedding less than once per year.
Rattle growth is a fundamental part of the shedding process for rattlesnakes. The rattle is made of keratin, the same stuff as the acellular matrix of the corneal skin layer – and your fingernails. Each time the snake generates a new corneal layer and prepares to shed the old one, it also produces a new rattle segment. Thus the newest segment is always at the base of the tail and contains live tissue – much like the base of your fingernail. And because each new segment is the width of the tail, young rapidly-growing rattlesnakes produce a tapered rattle (photo below).
The rattle is made up of loose, hollow, interlocking segments. Except for the first segment (or “birth button”), each segment consists of three lobes, yet only one is visible. The two hidden lobes fit loosely inside the older adjacent segments (photo, below). There is nothing loose inside that makes noise, the rattlesnake’s buzz comes from the loose segments vibrating together.
Rattlesnakes are born with a tiny hard cap on the end of the tail. I like to use the analogy of an eraser on a pencil – which is the approximate size of the newborn snake and the cap. During the first ten days or so, the first rattle segment or “birth button” is produced, which is uncovered by the postpartum shed. This is the only time that a part of the rattle comes off with the shed “skin.”
During every subsequent shed, the old corneal layer will simply be an open tube that slips over the rattle. When a shedding cycle begins, formation of the new rattle segment is usually noticeable before the eyes turn blue (photo, below).
Injecting acrylic paint into the first hollow segment allows me to identify rattlesnakes visually, with each animal receiving a unique color combination. The paint also allows me to record how often they shed.
In Female 05 (above), note that her birth button and the next two or three segments are already missing. The location of her original paint tells us that she has shed four times in the 40 months since she was first marked. The slight taper at the end of her rattle provides a hint of her age: considering the number of segments I think are missing and that snakes grow much faster and shed more frequently when young, I estimate that I originally captured her in her third or fourth year, making her about seven years old in this photo. Once all of the tapered segments at the end are lost, we have no way of estimating how old she is from the rattle.
You can also see that the rattle segments produced by Fem 05 (photo, above) as a young rattlesnake are noticeably larger than the more recent thin segments. This happens in the middle of rattles, too, with some segments being wide and robust while others are thin. I think rattle segments are a bit like tree rings in that good conditions with lots of food produce wider thicker segments. In the case of adult females like 05 above, it likely reflects the shift in resource allocation (more below) when she became sexually mature. It is worth mentioning that this snake had reproduced three years in a row when this photo was made (and she produced the four recent thin rattle segments) and her body condition was very poor after three consecutive litters.
In almost all rattlesnake species, adult males are larger than adult females. Yet the growth rate of baby males and females is indistinguishable until they reach sexual maturity. Once they start reproducing, however, female growth slows. We believe this happens because females start diverting most nutritional resources to the production of offspring, leaving much less available for their own growth. Males, on the other hand, are free to continue devoting their resources to increased body size – which is advantageous for fending off predators while searching for females and for battling other males for access to receptive females (click here for video of males fighting).
Finally, can we tell a snake’s age from the rattle? The one sure thing is that each rattle segment does not represent one year. The addition of rattle segments is well correlated with growth rate which, in turn, depends on age and food intake. We can make a pretty good estimate of age from a complete unbroken rattle and even when a few segments are missing, so long as some significant taper remains at the end. But for older snakes with broken rattles having no taper, there is just no way to know how many segments are missing.
So how long can rattlesnakes live? Decades! I have personally kept some southern California species in captivity over twenty years. The Splash Education Center at Mather Field has a healthy Northern Pacific Rattlesnake that has been in captivity for a well-documented 32 years! But how long they survive in the wild is a much different question. Captive snakes do not have to contend with coyotes, hawks, owls, king snakes, temperature extremes, and all the other hazards of a natural existence – not to mention humans and their cars. While references like Robert Stebbins’ Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians (2003; Houghton Mifflin Co.) list the maximum size of our northern California species as over five feet, the fact is that three-footers are now uncommon. Large rattlesnakes have become very rare all over the United States, with individuals approaching old record lengths almost never found. Of course, in some remote wilderness where people rarely visit (if there is such a place today!), maybe there are still a few very large wild rattlesnakes…
First a quick general update: Spring courtship seems to be over; I have not seen a courting pair since 16 May. Since the end of May, the pregnant females have taken up refuge in ideal shelters where they can thermoregulate optimally. Females 39 and 41 are now in the same shelters where they gave birth last year (but not together) and Female 47 is with 39. Female 54 is by herself and has not moved since we implanted a transmitter and released her on 23 May. Neither 47 nor 54 were telemetered last year so I have no history for them. These soon-to-be mothers are all maintaining body temperatures within a couple of degrees of 30C (86F). The males and Female 53 (not pregnant?) have been hunting, mostly hanging around California ground squirrel burrows for the past month as the squirrels produce the first pups of the season (more on hunting ground squirrels) and the body temperatures of these foraging snakes has varied widely compared to the pregnant females (more on body temps).
In my last post, I showed you a photo of an unidentified rattlesnake in the refuge with Female 41 – the same refuge where Females 41 and 43 had babies last year. (You may remember that Female 43 was found dead at the refuge last October; click here for that account) While I could only see the new snake’s nose and a small area of flank at the first encounter, I saw her twice more over the next eight days. She was shades of dark brown, while Female 41 is quite pretty with chocolate brown dorsal blotches on a gray background. During the subsequent two sightings, I could also see the new animal’s rattle, which was long and unbroken (i.e., she still had her birth button). Then a week ago, I found Female 41 and the new rattlesnake basking next to each other and was able to capture the new animal (CROR55).
The first thing I noticed was that she was pre-shed. That is, her eyes and new rattle segment were milky white (more about shedding below). The next important discovery was that she is, indeed, a female – and quite heavy…maybe pregnant. A photo of her snout (bottom photo, below), when compared to the nose in the photos of the unidentified rattlesnake on 3 June (top photo, below) confirms that she is the same animal.
I have numbered some landmark scales in these photos that you can compare but also compare the size and arrangement of surrounding unnumbered scales. And while the fine pigmentation of the individual scales is obscured in the pre-shed photo, I have circled some larger pigmented areas that are visible. Keep in mind that the photos were taken from slightly different angles, making some scales that are visible in one hard or impossible to see in the other. The size, number, and arrangement of nose and crown scales on these rattlesnakes are a bit like fingerprints on primates: they are individually unique, so far as we know. Also note the whitish eyes and how the scales on her nose appear a bit swollen in the pre-shed photo.
As I examined her further, I made another interesting discovery: she has sustained a serious injury to her abdomen sometime in the past. Although well healed now, her skin is scarred on the dorsal midline 575 mm (23 in) from her nose (her body length, excluding tail [snout-vent length or SVL] is 720 mm [28 in]). Furthermore, her body is noticeably narrowed at the scar (photo below) and her abdomen is hard and dense to the touch for several inches on both sides of the scar.
Nonetheless, she looks and acts healthy and might, indeed, be pregnant. I could feel two masses in her anterior abdomen that were consistent with fetuses but could not differentiate anything posteriorly where her abdomen is apparently scarred internally. She would normally be a great transmitter candidate but I elected to release her without one because of the suspected internal scarring where the transmitter would be implanted, plus I did not want to damage her skin as she prepares to shed.
This brings up the point that life is not easy for these snakes. In addition to this healed injury to Female 55 and the death of Female 43 last year, you may remember that I processed and released a small male (CROR44) early last December that had recently sustained some significant trauma from a predator, including a deep penetrating abdominal wound that I suspected would prove fatal over the winter (more details). While processing Male 52 early last month, I removed a “foxtail” (a seed from one of the non-native Bromus grasses that blanket the preserve) from his cloaca (cloaca defined). This little floral harpoon had not yet caused much damage but I don’t know what would have prevented it from burrowing into his abdomen and causing a potentially fatal injury. My point is that these rattlesnakes, despite their formidable reputation, are susceptible to constant hazards.
Shedding (the technical term is ecdysis) is the sloughing or molting of the outer epidermal layer (the stratum corneum) in scaled reptiles. This corneal layer is a matrix of keratin (the same material as your hair and fingernails – and the rattlesnake’s rattle!) infused with lipid (fat) molecules that greatly slows the passage of water through the skin. Because this matrix is acellular (contains no cells), it cannot grow. Thus, as the snake grows, this layer must be replaced periodically. When the time comes, the snake’s body produces a new corneal layer under the old one. This creates the blue or whitish tint, most notable in the eyes. In rattlesnakes, a new segment is produced at the base of the rattle during each shed, which is also whitish at this stage. Once the new corneal layer is ready, the snake’s body secretes fluid between the old and new layers, separating them and softening the old one. When this fluid is secreted, the whitish color disappears (the eyes clear) and the snake is ready to shed. They then rub their face on any available surface and start to peel back the old layer from around the nose and mouth (photo below). They continue rubbing, eventually crawling out of the old “skin,” leaving it inside-out, usually in one piece.
I’ll leave it there until next time, when I’ll explain rattle growth and trying to estimate age from the rattle.
Field studies of rattlesnakes indicate that they cease most movement when water stressed and remain in their established home ranges, rather than migrating into developed areas in search of water, despite frequent claims to the contrary.
In my last post, I mentioned witnessing Females 41 and 47 feeding, as well as finding new Female 53, who was very heavy and likely pregnant. Since then, I have come across Female 41 eating another vole, found another new female (#54) that is heavy and definitely pregnant, and come across a fat but unidentified rattlesnake in the refuge where Females 41 and 43 had babies last year. I could only see the face and a bit of a flank of the unidentified animal (photo below) so I couldn’t even determine sex.
It could be a male that has just eaten a ground squirrel pup – but it is more likely another pregnant female. We now have five telemetered females (39, 41, 47, 53 and 54) and all are in great shape, with three either confirmed or likely pregnant and the others in good shape to reproduce although I have not yet had my hands on them this year to palpate for fetuses.
This brings up a timely point: This will obviously be a good year for rattlesnake reproduction in our area, despite being in the midst of an historic drought. Since the news media often quotes “experts” claiming drought “drives rattlesnakes out of the hills and into yards looking for water,” this is a great opportunity to set the record straight about how drought affects rattlesnake movement.
We live in a Mediterranean climate, historically characterized by warm dry summers and cool wet winters. Even during years with “normal” precipitation, vast tracks of mountains, foothills and many valley areas have no surface water between late spring and the return of winter rains in November or December – yet they support healthy populations of rattlesnakes. Herbivores (insects, rodents, etc.) get most of their water from the plants they eat and rattlesnakes get water from eating the herbivores. The bodies of terrestrial vertebrates are usually composed of 65–75% water, so eating a 100 gram (3.5 ounce) rodent is like drinking about 70 grams (2.5 ounces) of water for a rattlesnake (plus the nutrients and energy gained). Make no mistake, rattlesnakes suck droplets from various surfaces, including their own skin, deposited by rain and dew (photo, below) and they will certainly drink from standing water when it’s available. But especially during summer and fall, these other sources are not available and virtually all of the water a rattlesnake needs is obtained from its prey.
Rattlesnakes are models of low energy physiology. As ambush predators, they move comparatively little and rely largely on anaerobic metabolism. Their sedentary lifestyle combined with the corneal layer of their skin (full of water-blocking lipids) dramatically lowers the amount of water that passes into and out of their bodies – known as “water flux.” Nonetheless, multiple studies have shown that the most significant mechanism for water loss in terrestrial snakes is evaporation, with about 75% being lost through the skin and the remainder via exhaled breath.
During my four-year field study (2001–2004) of Mohave Rattlesnakes in southern California, I was able to compare behavior, including average daily movement and reproductive effort, between the severe drought year 2002 and 2003–2004, when rainfall returned to average or above average. I found that average daily movement during 2002 was less than one third of 2003–2004 averages. And while I encountered dozens of courting pairs during the two non-drought years, I observed a male courting a female on only one occasion in 2002. Yet these rattlesnakes continued to eat at a rate indistinguishable from the non-drought years, based on scats deposited in holding containers and later analyzed. These snakes were reducing exposed surface area (and, therefore, evaporative water loss) by remaining coiled and immobile, covering much of their skin within their coils. They even buried their coils partially in loose soil at times, covering additional skin area. Remaining stationary eliminated their ability to find and court mates but, as sit-and-wait ambush predators, it allowed them to continue to hunt – and obtain the body water of their herbivorous prey. They also positioned themselves behind vegetation and ground contours in 2002 to avoid wind and sun, both of which increase evaporation rates. You can find more details in my MS thesis.
We have seen similar behavior in Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes in recent years at my El Dorado Hills study site, where the rattlesnakes remained tightly coiled and stationary in deep chaparral on north-facing slopes during particularly hot dry summer weather. At Effie Yeaw, all of the rattlesnakes caught by staff around the ponds during the past year, as well as the telemetered rattlesnakes I have found there, have been males found during the courtship season. The females have remained in the woods, away from water sources. While the snakes will drink when they find the ponds (or other water sources), that’s not why the males are there… they’re wandering around looking for females! And, yet, the females are now fat and pregnant.
Drought probably does not affect rattlesnake movement until it becomes locally severe, as it did at my Mohave Rattlesnake study site in 2002. When the snakes start to become water stressed, they don’t set out into uncharted territory looking for surface water. Rather, they stop moving and hunker down where they can best reduce evaporative water loss while still striking any prey that wanders by. Currently, if the preserve at Effie Yeaw Nature Center is any indication, there is lots of annual plant growth and the vole and ground squirrel populations are thriving – and so are the rattlesnakes.
So when people find a rattlesnake in their yard during a drought, the most likely explanation is that it is a male looking for receptive females and the drought is not severe enough locally to stress the rattlesnakes. When they are truly water stressed, rattlesnakes move less – not more – than usual. Unlike most large mammals that have much higher metabolic and water flux rates and require standing water to drink, there is no evidence that rattlesnakes leave their established home ranges looking for water, despite the popular belief to the contrary. They do just the opposite.