New research on ground squirrels’ resistance to rattlesnake venom

I have mentioned before that much research has been done on the interactions, both behavioral and biochemical, between Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus) and California Ground Squirrels (Otospermophilus beecheyi). And that research continues.

It started, so far as I know, with studies by UC Davis psychology professors Donald Owings and Richard Coss in the 1970’s, when they became interested in how California Ground Squirrels behaved when confronted by Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes. Several researchers have since spun off various aspects of the relationship between these two species, including Dr. Rulon Clark and his students at San Diego State University, who study the phenomenon from the rattlesnakes’ perspective. A common thread among these studies is that the adult squirrels are largely resistant to the rattlesnakes’ venom, often surviving with nothing but a nasty wound that eventually heals (although adult squirrels occasionally succumb, vividly illustrated by the photo accompanying the Washington Post article linked below).

But while adult ground squirrels seldom die from rattlesnake bites, their pups are much more vulnerable and the rattlesnakes hunt them intensely, starting about this time of year. I have linked a 60-second video made by Denise and I in July 2014 of our Male 36 (yes, the same one just recaptured after 20 months) preying on a ground squirrel pup while the pup’s mother tries to defend her offspring (Read original account here).

Tail-flagging and pushing grass at the snake are common behaviors by adult California Ground Squirrels when confronted by rattlesnakes. In this one-minute clip, the snake had already bitten a pup, which is laying in the grass and out of the frame at the start. The adult squirrel soon retreats to the stricken pup, which appears as a dark area in the grass. The adult squirrel’s attempts to deter the rattlesnake appear to work momentarily a couple of times as the snake turns away but almost immediately comes back toward the bitten pup. Near the end of the clip, the snake reaches the pup and bites it again. Although the pup runs out of the frame, it only makes it a few feet. The rattlesnake follows and swallows it a few minutes later. Excuse the background helicopter noise, as the fire department was conducting an operation in the river nearby. View the video here.

I bring this up now because my friend, videographer George Nyberg (who produced the very nice 2015 video of my rattlesnake study), has alerted me to a new Washington Post article on the biochemical “arms race” between Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes and California Ground Squirrels (view article). Thanks, George!

Matt Holding, whose research is the focus of the WP piece, is a former graduate student of another friend, Dr. Emily Taylor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Jim Biardi, second author on the new study, is a former member of the UC Davis group that originally studied ground squirrels and rattlesnakes.

The Washington Post does a nice job of describing how natural selection works: in short, there is always variation among individuals and some are better adapted than others to feed themselves (or avoid being eaten!) and those individuals tend to survive longer and produce more offspring, which carry the genes for those successful traits. Less successful traits are passed on less frequently (i.e., fewer offspring are produced). The peer-reviewed paper upon which the WP article is based was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B (volume 283, issue 1829, April 2016). However, since this is not an open source journal, access to the complete manuscript is not easily available to the general public right away.

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