It took only a few days of moderately warmer weather to stir our sleeping rattlesnakes. I haven’t downloaded my temperature logger recently but it has been easy to notice that it’s in the 50s instead of the 30s the past few mornings, while daytime highs have been in the high 60s.
And today, we found some rattlesnakes stirring. Until now, the body temps of all of the hibernating rattlesnakes have been in the single digits Celsius (less than 50F). Earlier today, ten of twelve telemetered rattlesnakes were in double digits despite a full thick overcast. Male 37 – still inaccessible on the bluff – produced a calculated body temperature of 21C (70F). (The bluff is always warmer because it is steep and faces south, so solar energy is more concentrated per unit of surface area.) Male 37 is clearly no longer deep underground.
Next was Male 46 at 16C (61F) and, sure enough, he was peering out from under the log where he spent the winter.
When we arrived at Female 41’s radio signal, we found a rattlesnake laying out in the grass and assumed it was her. The rattle was not clearly visible at the time but later examination of photographs disclosed white/green paint in the rattle. Female 41 is white/blue and the rattlesnake we observed turned out to be Male 49, marked and released without a transmitter exactly two years ago today, on 10 March 2015! Female 41 was very close but out of sight.
We also found Male 40 laying out in the same spot as last week (see the blog post on 6 March), plus we found a new animal laying in the grass next to another large log where two telemetered adults have been napping since last fall. He (or she) was captured and, while too small for a transmitter, will be measured, marked, and will donate a blood sample before being released as CROR81.
Well, it’s March and many recent days have been sunny and quite warm. Even though daytime highs have been listed in the 50s, that’s measured in shade and the temperature in the sun near the ground is always considerably warmer. So why were rattlesnakes basking in good numbers by late February last year but not yet this year?
There are two parts to the answer. First, most of the snakes spend the winter deep enough underground that they are insulated from daily temperature fluctuations. In other words, they do not feel daytime highs or nightime lows. Deep in their winter shelters, the temperature creeps up or down gradually in response to the mean (average) outside temperature. The second part of the answer is that natural selection tends to remove animals from the gene pool that don’t spend the winter deep enough and/or that venture out too early and get caught in freezing weather. The animals that select optimal winter shelters tend to live longer, and thus produce more offspring carrying the genes for those successful behaviors. (For those of you interested in the evidence for genetic influence on behavior, Time Love and Memory (2000) by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jonathan Weiner is an entertaining and astonishing summary, written in easy-to-understand language but with references to the scholarly research.)
So how do we know the temperature in the underground shelters?
Besides having recorded hourly temperatures for nearly four years with a data logger in a burrow 1 meter (39″) below ground in the Mohave Desert during a previous study, we can routinely calculate body temperatures of the hibernating snakes from the pulse interval of their transmitters during the winter.
The transmitters come from the manufacturer (Holohil Systems Ltd.; www.holohil.com) with a calibration graph showing the correlation between pulse rate and temperature for each transmitter (they vary slightly).
I routinely check the pulse rate in a water bath at room temperature before implanting a transmitter and adjust the mathematical conversion, if it differs slightly from the factory data. Then it is a simple matter in the field to time the pulse interval with a stopwatch and convert that measurement to temperature later. And since the transmitter is implanted inside the snake’s abdominal cavity, transmitter temperature equals core body temperature.
I also record hourly shade air temperatures with a data logger in the nature preserve at Effie Yeaw Nature Center. This gives me a standard local reference against which to compare rattlesnake behavior and look for correlations with weather conditions.
I can then compare rattlesnake behavior, body temperatures and air temperatures. This is especially interesting when one year is compared to another.
You can see about six weeks’ data from this year in the chart above. The fluctuations in mean (average) air temperature (open circles) reflect the daily changes based on cloudy verses sunny days and cold air masses moving through verses warmer southern air (the same factors discussed every day by meteorologists). The five filled circles are the mean body temperatures of the twelve telemetered rattlesnakes on the days that I recorded their data. There are more air temperature records because the data logger records automatically around the clock while rattlesnake body temperatures are only recorded when I visit the study site (which I do less frequently when the animals are inactive).
Now take a look at the corresponding data from last year:
Checking my behavioral observations from last year, I find a few rattlesnakes were starting to bask occasionally by the end of January and most were basking regularly on sunny days by the end of February. Regular basking continued through mid-March. Then, suddenly, between 17 and 19 March, most of the rattlesnakes left their hibernation shelters, as if someone had given them the “all clear” signal. This was multiple rattlesnakes leaving multiple shelters at the same time – pretty amazing! By the way, you may also notice that I visited and recorded data more frequently in February last year. That’s because there were rattlesnakes to see and behavior to record (besides the science; it’s just more fun when there are rattlesnakes to see!).
If I combine the raw data from 2016 and 2017 for comparison, the chart gets pretty messy and trends are hard to make out. But we can create mathematical models for those same data that present a much clearer picture.
You can see that mean February air temperatures started out much lower this year compared to 2016. And, in 2016, with mean air temperatures exceeding 50F by early February and staying there, the rattlesnakes began to bask and their body temps took off as a result. This year, air temps started nearly ten degrees lower, rose briefly, but then took a nosedive in late February, keeping the rattlesnakes cool and underground so far.
Of course, some individuals do not behave in the same manner as most others. I have heard some reports of a few rattlesnakes being sighted in the past few weeks and one dog reportedly bitten already. While none of the telemetered rattlesnakes at Effie Yeaw have emerged from hibernation yet, one rattlesnake without a radio has been basking early – just as he has done each of the past two years. My old skinny Male 40 has been frequently laying in the sun at the entrance to his winter shelter for more than a week.
As you may recall, Male 40 was implanted with a transmitter in 2014 but I removed his second radio last spring and released him without one because he was not producing useful behavioral data. It was not that he was just behaving differently than the others (after all, unusual behavior is interesting and valuable to record), he has been chronically and significantly underweight, appears to be quite old, moves very little during the summer, and has never been found courting a female. Given his poor body condition, I was afraid that he would die during hibernation and his transmitter would not be retrievable. But, even without a radio, he continues to be sighted regularly and has now made it through another winter.
But most others seem to be waiting for some sustained warmer weather before venturing out.
Lots of you have been asking me how the rattlesnakes are doing with all the high water coming down the American River from Folsom and Nimbus Dams.
Well, the telemetered rattlesnakes are all in the oak forest and well above the high water. You may recall that Females 53 and 75 both gave birth to their broods a few months ago out in the flood plain near the usual river channel. And since December, both of their birth sites have been covered periodically by lots of fast-moving water.
The good news is that these females returned to higher ground shortly after their kids completed their neonatal sheds and dispersed from their birth sites in the fall and both have been tucked into their usual winter shelters since cold weather set in. We know that, of course, because of the radio transmitter each carries in her abdomen.
The fate of their babies, on the other hand, is not known. As I have mentioned before, we cannot effectively radio-track the little ones because we do not have tiny transmitters that will last long enough to make surgeries worthwhile. In other words, it is not practical to surgically replace transmitters every few weeks, which would be necessary due to the tiny batteries such transmitters use.
One thing we do know about baby rattlesnakes, however, is that few of them survive their first six months of life. They are frequently encountered in September and October, shortly after birth, but they’re scarce by spring. We know they have many predators when they’re small but it is also not hard to imagine the little ones born in the riverbed remaining there for the winter and perishing in the flood. If so, that is just natural selection in action: those rattlesnakes, adult or baby, that fail to seek higher ground for the winter are less likely to survive and pass their genes on to future generations.
Keep in mind that, on average, if a pair of rattlesnakes – or any other kind of animal – produces more than replacements (i.e., kids that reach maturity and reproduce) for themselves in their lives, we would be swimming in rattlesnakes! Put another way, on average over time in a stable population, animals are just replacing themselves… which means that most offspring never live to adulthood.
If you have been reading my blog for very long, you will have read this before: Nature is a cruel mother! Most wild animals’ lives end in the jaws of another…or sometimes in a flood. That’s just the way it is.
On a brighter note, we started seeing some basking rattlesnakes on sunny days by the end of February last year. So we may well be within a few weeks of the kickoff of the 2017 rattlesnake season! (Remember, watch where you put your hands and feet once the weather turns warm and leave rattlesnakes alone when you encounter them and your chance of being bitten is very near zero!)