Yesterday, 3 April, I found an unmarked rattlesnake with a very short broken rattle on top of our Female 47. The unmarked snake fled immediately but I was able to see that he was a small adult with only two rattle segments (the live proximal segment plus one hollow one). As there is no reason for another female to be accompanying Female 47, I almost certainly interrupted a courting male.
When I returned today, Female 47 had moved about 6 m and the same unmarked snake was on top of her. Since I approached with more caution today, I was able to watch and video tape the courtship. The female appears to have been in a typical round “pancake” coil and looks to be completely unresponsive; she does not move except for being pushed around by the male. The male, on the other hand, goes through a cycle of 30-90 seconds of rest followed by a short period of head and body jerking, short rapid tongue-flicks and chin-rubbing on the female, culminating with pushing his cloaca around under her. During this process, you will see the male wag his tail. The male then goes back into a rest phase before repeating the effort.
This is very typical rattlesnake courtship behavior. Since the cloaca (on both sexes) is sealed by a flat tight-fitting belly scale, courtship by the male is almost certainly wasted effort unless the female is receptive. What makes her receptive? Can he woo her into being receptive? We are not sure. Head-jerking, tongue-flicking and chin-rubbing is energetically expensive for the male and the movement exposes both snakes to potential predation, so it must be productive or the behavior would not endure. And the female is almost certainly selective, maybe selecting mates based on size, health, courtship performance, or other criteria. How long the male can keep up the courtship may be an indication to the female of stamina and health.
Female health, particularly replenishing body fat since delivering her last litter, may affect the female’s receptivity but fertilization of ova does not necessarily coincide with copulation. Long-term sperm storage is well established in many pit vipers, including rattlesnakes. Thus, it is common for a female rattlesnake to store viable sperm for multiple seasons, allowing her to fertilize ova without having recently mated. But does that mean that a female will mate when she is not physically ready to produce young? At this point, we just don’t know how all of this works.
In the video, the male’s head is at the top of the frame and his tail is in the lower left. The female’s head is in the lower right. So, click here for a 45-second clip of today’s courtship.