Will rattlesnakes be more abundant this year?

I’ve been getting this question a lot lately. And my response is, “It depends on where you are.”

Actually, it depends on the local weather in recent years where the question is being asked.

Many of the female rattlesnakes in the Effie Yeaw Nature Center preserve have been reproducing annually since at least 2014, including the drought years prior to this extraordinarily wet winter and spring. And, as I have written here before, that’s unusual – at least according to similar studies of other species of North American rattlesnakes. This far from the equator, most pitvipers only produce a brood every two or three years because of the time it takes females to replenish sufficient fat stores to support another pregnancy (they lose 30-50% of their body weight with each litter). But along the American River Parkway during 2014, 2015, and 2016, there was enough local rain each winter to get the annual plants growing and everything blooming, providing plenty of food for insects, squirrels, voles, and other small animals. The insects fed the abundant lizards that reproduced like crazy each year, and the rattlesnakes fed on the small mammals and lizards that were plentiful. So rattlesnakes and other mesopredators (mid-level predators in the food chain; i.e. they are eaten by bigger predators) have been thriving locally, despite the historically low reservoir levels and skimpy snowpack in recent years. And because rattlesnakes produce only one brood per year, they can’t do better than they’ve been doing.

On the other hand, when local drought reduces the availability of the rattlesnakes’ prey (i.e., reduced local rainfall significantly suppresses plant growth, which negatively affects everything else up the food chain), that changes the snakes’ behavior. Among other things, movement and courtship slows significantly and reproductive rates are almost certainly reduced.

So, in an area like the American River Parkway, this wet spring is not likely to increase the rattlesnake population because they can’t reproduce much better than before all the rain. However, in areas where reduced rainfall in recent years significantly impaired floral growth , rattlesnakes will be better fed and more active this year and they are more likely to successfully produce young.

But it is important to understand that what people interpret as “abundance” is usually just a change in behavior. I studied this phenomenon in Mohave rattlesnakes in the southern California desert for my MS thesis.  In dry conditions, predators get most of their water from the body water of their prey (we’re all about 70% water). So, when rodents are abundant, rattlesnakes are well hydrated, behave normally, and males search constantly for females during spring and fall. But when their prey becomes scarce and other water sources are not available, they reduce water loss by remaining coiled and moving less, thus reducing the amount of skin exposed to the dry air. This is important because cutaneous (through the skin) evaporation accounts for about 75% of the snakes’ daily water loss.

As a result, during local drought, people encounter rattlesnakes less frequently – not because there are fewer rattlesnakes but because they remain hidden and move around a lot less (top photo, below). During non-drought times, people see more rattlesnakes because their behavior is not inhibited and they crawl around a lot more (bottom photo, below), especially the males during their courtship season.

So, if you live in an area like the American River Parkway, where there has been lush growth of grasses and other annual and perennial plants in recent years, this wet year should make little difference in the apparent abundance of rattlesnakes.

But if your neighborhood has been dry with little springtime plant growth in the last few years, you may see an increase in rattlesnakes this year for two reasons: the males may be searching for females much more than before, plus there may be more baby rattlesnakes in September and October this year (and likely next) as a result of females having plenty of rodents to eat this year.

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