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.
If you have been following my rattlesnake study from the beginning, you know that we struggled through some faulty transmitters early in the project (search “failed transmitters” for previous info). The first six transmitters I implanted failed early. Several failed during hibernation (2014/15) and, because I knew where the snakes spent the winter, I was able to capture them when they began basking in the spring. Two, however, proved to be a bigger problem.
Male 36’s transmitter was first to fail in September 2014, with two months of activity remaining that season. Male 37’s transmitter lasted into the winter but he hibernated high on the bluff under a thick mat of vegetation, making his exact location very difficult to visit and impossible to pinpoint. Thus, both emerged in the spring of 2015 without functioning transmitters.
Both eluded recapture until October 2015, when I found Male 37 (details here) under the log I call “The Community Center” because everybody visits it from time to time. Males visit looking for girls, pregnant females hang out there to thermoregulate and give birth, and both sexes use it for shelter while waiting to shed (but nobody spends the winter there). I replaced Male 37’s transmitter then, leaving only Male 36 unaccounted for – until last week.
After twenty months, I had just about given up on finding Male 36 again. But when I checked around The Community Center one day last week, I was thrilled to spot his rattle with red/red paint! Like Male 37 last fall, Male 36 was also pre-shed and using The Community Center for shelter while he waited to complete the process.
Just like Male 37, I captured Male 36 and kept him several days until he shed. His transmitter was replaced and he was released yesterday.
The return of Male 36 fills my permit quota of seven telemetered males. We currently have five females telemetered and I am holding out, hoping to get a couple of females radio-tagged farther out in the northeastern portion of the preserve where few of our current snakes venture. Interestingly, Male 38 was hanging around with two females out there last week, including last Saturday when I was hosting a video crew from UC Santa Cruz. While I would have loved to get a transmitter into one of them, they were too wary and repeatedly escaped when approached.
I wish more people could see just how hard these fascinating creatures try to avoid confrontations with people!
How well do rattlesnakes tolerate surgically-implanted transmitters?
As I have discussed before, there is a long (20+ years) history of telemetry studies of rattlesnakes in which individual animals tolerate the transmitters for years, enduring periodic surgeries to replace the radios. The animals thrive, repeatedly producing offspring and growing at the same rate as rattlesnakes without transmitters.
I bring this up because of a phone call last weekend from the landowner where I conducted my El Dorado County field study. He had just encountered the first Northern Pacific Rattlesnake I ever marked and telemetered, still identifiable by the yellow-over-yellow paint remaining in his rattle. He is now an exceptionally large male with twelve rattle segments – but in 2009, he was a young animal with a tapered unbroken rattle. He eventually endured four annual surgeries to implant and replace transmitters, followed by a fifth surgery in 2013 to remove his last radio.
Male 01 being sighted alive and healthy is just more evidence that the surgical protocol and other study methods used by me and many of my rattlesnake-researcher colleagues is well tolerated by the animals we seek to learn more about.
Despite my frequent admonition that we often tend to give rattlesnakes and similar animals too much credit for cognitive thought, friends at San Diego State University recently published some compelling evidence that rattlesnakes may learn from experience and apply those lessons to anticipate and mitigate problems during future similar circumstances. Bree Putman and Rulon Clark have spent years studying rattlesnake predation tactics by setting up video cameras on hunting rattlesnakes and recording their predatory encounters with small mammals. (This works because rattlesnakes are ambush hunters that sit still for long periods of time, waiting for prey to wander by.)
While reviewing 2000 hours of video, Bree and Rulon discovered two examples of rattlesnakes using their heads and necks to move foliage out of the way that might otherwise interfere with a strike when prey wanders close (click here for video). The animals involved were Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes – the same species as we have in the Sacramento area. Similar behavior has been reported a couple of times in the past, once involving a Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) and once involving an Arizona Blacktail Rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus); both these incidents were witnessed by observers but not recorded.
Thus, evidence continues to accumulate that rattlesnakes are likely more social and maybe more intelligent than previously thought – although many habits are undoubtedly genetically programmed by natural selection. The new report by Putman and Clark is contained in the current issue of The Southwestern Naturalist (volume 60, number 4; December 2015).
I’ve been getting lots of questions after last night’s (17 April) KCRA News interview with a local “rattlesnake hunter” who makes his living keeping us all safe from rattlers. If you have been reading my blog, you know there is nothing new to be alarmed about. The last few hot days have not brought out the rattlesnakes. Indeed, general emergence from their winter dens occurred more than a month ago. Male rattlesnakes continue to be busy looking for and trying to mate with as many females as they can while the females hunt for mice, rats, and other prey. As sit-and-wait ambush predators, the females don’t move much and thus are seldom encountered by people. But the males have been and will continue to constantly search for females until late May or June, in the process turning up in yards and on trails and other places where they encounter people.
Once again, most bites can be avoided by watching where you put your unprotected hands and feet and leaving rattlesnakes alone when you encounter them.
We have been encountering numerous pairs of rattlesnakes in the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve over the last few weeks. Here are brief video clips of a couple of examples: First, our telemetered Male 62 (blue/white paint in rattle), entwined with an unmarked female. These snakes were not moving during my brief visit but the males often accompany the females for many days but cannot keep courting them continuously (click here for video). You can see why in the video of Male 37 actively courting Female 41… it takes a lot of energy! (click here).
On 1 April, several hours after I videoed Male 37 courting Female 41, I returned and just missed a fight between two males over Female 41. As I approached, I briefly saw both males, with heads and necks high off the ground, twisted around one another. But one quickly fled, either from me or he had had enough of Male 37…who is a big healthy male rattlesnake! In any event, Male 37 was all excited and remained raised off the ground for a minute or more, guarding his girl (see photo below).
A video made a few years ago of two males fighting on the concrete in front of the Effie Yeaw Visitor Center doors is on the Nature Center website (or click here to see it).
Despite persistent cool mornings and alternating sunny and cloudy days, nine of eleven telemetered rattlesnakes have left their winter shelters and the remaining two have been basking regularly and will undoubtedly be on the move soon. We have also been finding plenty of new rattlesnakes basking and now have 27 animals processed and marked with colored paint in the rattles, in addition to the eleven with radios.
As I have already described, Female 41 was one of the first to leave her hibernation site and was soon joined by Male 49, a snake marked last season but not telemetered. Male 49 and Female 41 remained in close proximity at the same location from 16 February until 20 March and, although they were occasionally coiled in contact with one another, I never saw the male courting her. Male 49 followed when Female 41 moved more than 50 meters between 20 and 24 March but there has still been no witnessed courtship. However, the grass is very thick at their new location, making her hard to see and him impossible to spot if he’s not with her (and I don’t want to step on him… they’re very fragile!).
On 22 March, I came across Female 55, another animal processed last year and released without a transmitter, basking alone at the edge of a large log. But when I returned on 24 March, she had company: an unmarked (no paint in the rattle) male on top of her, jerking, chin-rubbing, and tongue-flicking – typical courtship behavior (you can view a 2015 clip of Female 41 with another male here).
We can expect the females to hunt for the next two-to-three months, after which pregnant females will retreat to their favorite gestation shelters to thermoregulate until their kids are born around the first of September. Non-pregnant females will continue to hunt through the summer. Males will spend most of their time looking for receptive females until late May/early June, after which they, too, will hunt full-time for voles and ground squirrel pups until courtship resumes in late summer.
After a couple of false starts during warm periods in mid and late February, a new series of cool storms kept the Effie Yeaw Nature Center rattlesnakes immobile through the first half of March. On days with a little sunshine, both telemetered and other rattlesnakes were frequently found basking at the entrance to their shelters but they did not venture away from them. Natural selection tends to remove animals from the gene pool that wander too early and get caught in a late-season freeze. As if to demonstrate that it was cool temperature and not the rain that was keeping them inactive, several rattlesnakes were found lying out in the rain on days when the temperature was in the high 60s, despite the clouds.
While the rattlesnakes continued to bask on sunny days, none of the telemetered animals moved between 29 February and 17 March. Then today, I discovered that 7 of the 9 telemetered rattlesnakes had left their shelters and moved significant distances in the past two days.
I haven’t seen courtship yet. Female 41 and Male 49 hung out together for a month (16 February through 15 March) but they were only rarely touching one another and were usually coiled a couple of feet apart with no courtship observed. She is now hunting several dozen yards away and Male 49, without a transmitter, has disappeared.
The important message, however, is that rattlesnakes are on the move and encounters between people and rattlesnakes will increase immediately. Unfortunately, I have already seen photos of a rattlesnake bite from a few days ago in the foothills. Watching carefully where you put your hands and unprotected feet and leaving snakes alone when you encounter them would prevent almost all bites. If you must walk in vegetation or rocks where you cannot be sure what you’re stepping on, wear high-top shoes or boots that cover your feet and ankles. Of course, boots that cover some of your calf are better but most accidental snakebites (where the person is not intentionally interacting with the snake) are to the ankle and below.
Remember, you can’t save all the cute animals, eat all the tasty ones, kill all the ones that scare you, and have a functional ecosystem, too!
After some limited basking by a couple of telemetered rattlesnakes and short movements by Female 41 and Male 49 two weeks ago, the return of cool cloudy weather sent these animals underground again. Then, despite several days of sunny weather last week, the rattlesnakes remained cool and out of sight – with the exception of Male 49. While Female 41 stayed underground and cold, he napped most afternoons in the sun just a couple feet away.
But yesterday, everything changed. Males 37 and 38 who spent the winter near the top of the bluff had moved down; one was out of sight under a log and the other was in an ambush coil in the grass under a small fig tree.
A rapidly pulsing transmitter told me before I arrived that my underweight geriatric Male 40 had survived another winter and was in the sun at his winter shelter.
Female 41 was in the sun with Male 49 laying partly on top of her, although I saw no active courtship during my brief visit.
Other telemetered snakes had moved short distances but were out of sight when I was there yesterday. But in my travels, I also sighted five unmarked rattlesnakes basking, including a beautiful little female sporting a food bolus about the size of a vole – so she has already fed successfully.
So for the next three months or so, females will be trying to eat as much as they can to nourish their next brood while males will be wandering all over the place (and hunting less) in search of receptive females. It is during this time that male rattlesnakes tend to turn up in yards and on trails, producing interactions with people.
Remember that rattlesnakes want nothing to do with something the size of a person. Leave them alone and they will be happy to avoid you, too!
As sunny 70+ degree days have been warming the ground recently, body temperatures of the telemetered rattlesnakes have been creeping up… but only from the 50-60F range into the higher 60s. Then, yesterday, I found Female 41 laying in the grass next to the log where she has spent the past two winters. But just being visible doesn’t constitute emergence.
I returned late this morning and found Female 39 visible for the first time, basking in dappled sun under the end of the log where she has spent the past two winters.
Then, not only did I find that Female 41 had moved about 20 feet from her winter shelter to a smaller nearby log, but I watched as Male 49, a large non-telemetered animal with white/green paint in his rattle, arrived at the same log and joined her. Although they coiled next to each other, I saw no actual courtship behavior during the 45 minutes I watched.
Body temperatures of Males 37 and 38, both of which spent the winter high on the bluff north of the preserve, were around 90F at midday today. Because their winter locations are almost inaccessible, I don’t know if they have actually left their hibernacula but they were both definitely in the sun today. Remember that ground temperature is much higher in the sun than the air temperature, particularly on south-facing slopes.
As of today, the other five telemetered rattlesnakes remain relatively cool and out of sight and the weather forecast looks like cloudy skies, cooler temps, and more rain over the next few days.
The study animals did not begin to leave their winter shelters until the end of the first week in March last year. Although this is three weeks earlier than last year, it is certainly a limited emergence with many snakes remaining underground and inactive. But the fact remains that some rattlesnakes have left their winter shelters, so “rattlesnake season” is definitely underway.
Remember that being careful where you place your unprotected hands and feet and leaving snakes alone when you find them would prevent almost all rattlesnake bites!
At the conclusion of my last post (29 October), I mentioned that it appeared that all of the rattlesnakes had settled into their winter shelters and, indeed, two days later, they had done so. Of the six telemetered rattlesnakes for which I have refuge locations from last winter, five of them returned to the same refuge this winter. The exception is Male 38, who spent last winter under a log in the flat floodplain but this winter is high on the hillside near the northern preserve boundary. On 31 October, I climbed the bluff and found Male 38’s location just a few meters away from Male 37, who had returned to his 2014/2015 location. Both animals’ radio signals were originating from under thick vegetation covered by wild grape vines high on the steep hillside. Both are undoubtedly underground, likely in ground squirrel burrows.
Of the eight telemetered rattlesnakes this winter, three are hibernating together in one refuge, two are together in another, and three are hibernating alone in different locations (including Males 37 and 38). Of course, there may be non-telemetered rattlesnakes with any or all of them but that’s hard to determine at this stage. I will do some burrow camera work soon but that is often inconclusive, as their shelters are often too deep or have too many sharp turns for the camera. Even if I reach them, I cannot visually identify the snakes without looking for paint in their rattles, which are usually covered by their coils. In warm weather I often poke them with the camera to get them to expose their rattles but I don’t want to disturb them when they are cold.
So how cold are they? The table below shows the ground surface temperature in sun and shade, as well as the coldest, warmest, and average body temperatures of the telemetered rattlesnakes over the last five weeks of 2015. I will continue to occasionally collect temperature data until spring emergence. That will be foretold by the snakes beginning to bask in the morning sun, probably sometime in March. Even if I don’t catch them basking, they won’t be able to hide their elevated body temperatures; then we’ll know they’re about to begin their 2016 season.
Brumation vs. hibernation
Several people have asked me about the term “brumation” and the difference between brumation and hibernation. According to Harvey Lillywhite’s Dictionary of Herpetology (2008, Krieger Publishing, Malabar, FL), brumation is:
“A condition of torpor during extended periods of low temperature (winter dormancy), intended to distinguish such states of inactivity of amphibians and reptiles from the term ‘hibernation’ that is used commonly in reference to birds and mammals. Term coined by W. Mayhew (Comp. Biochem. Physiol. 16:103–119, 1965)”
When used regarding endotherms (animals that regulate their body temperature internally, like birds and mammals), “hibernation” generally describes a state of deep sleep in which an animal lowers its body temperature and metabolism to conserve stored nutrients during harsh winters, such as many bears and bats. In reality, ectotherms like rattlesnakes do essentially the same thing with two exceptions: they remain responsive and do not “sleep” although they become very sluggish as they get cold and, after all, it is not a big physiological change for ectotherms because their body temperature varies with the environment year-round. As a result, many herpetologists ignore brumation and use hibernation to describe winter inactivity in reptiles and amphibians, too (e.g., F. Harvey Pough, et al. 2016. Herpetology, 4th ed., Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA).
Our wayward male shed on the morning of 7 October, five days after being recaptured. His faulty transmitter was surgically replaced that afternoon and he was released the following morning.
I took advantage of the necessity to allow Male 37 to shed before his surgery to collect some useful data. His pre-shed body mass was 693.5 g. By weighing him again and subtracting his post-shed mass of 668.4 g, we find that he lost 25.1 g (0.9 oz.), which was 3.6% of his body mass. Then, by drying his shed “skin” on a hot plate to drive off ambient moisture and subtracting that mass (5.1 g) from 25.1g, we can calculate that 80% of the mass he lost was water. Although these rattlesnakes are unaffected by California’s drought so far (more details here and here), that will eventually change and such data will be invaluable for calculating water loss and gain over time (water “flux”) and predicting when the snakes will become water stressed.
Another healthy postpartum female, CROR 47, was killed on the morning of 21 September. I may have been premature in assuming that a coyote killed Female 54 on 14 September (details). Female 47 was also very fresh when I found her, killed in the early morning in the meadow by something that did not eat her.
It was obvious that Female 47 had been pulled apart, with her body in two large pieces and internal organs and strips of skin pulled away. But she was all there. Maybe most interesting was the condition of her head: The top of her head was intact and unmarked but her lower jaw was mostly gone and the roof of her mouth was mangled, especially where the fangs had been (caution: graphic close-up).
In reconsidering the death of Female 54 a week before, I assumed that her missing head and neck had been eaten but it is entirely possible that I just didn’t find them. And I rationalized that a coyote dropped the snake as it probably fled (unseen) from me. But I see coyotes around the meadow frequently and, while they give people a wide birth, they are not panicked by our presence. If I interrupted a coyote with Female 54, why wouldn’t it have carried the rattlesnake away to finish the meal?
So what would encounter both rattlesnakes in the meadow early in the morning and pull them apart before leaving them uneaten? I have had coyotes kill Mohave rattlesnakes in southern California in the past but they eat the entire snake and chew the transmitters; these transmitters were undamaged. And what would remove the jaw and mangle the inside of the mouth?
My best idea is turkeys. Interestingly, I have found nothing in the scientific literature about wild turkeys killing adult rattlesnakes, although there are several anecdotal accounts in books, including Laurence Klauber’s Rattlesnakes (1972, Univ. California Press) of turkeys mobbing adult rattlers. Inquiries of my rattlesnake researcher colleagues has produced one witnessed account of a wild turkey killing and eating a two-foot timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) in Minnesota. And there is a video on YouTube of two turkeys apparently killing what appears to be a large gopher snake (Pituophis) on a golf course.
If anyone reading this has first-hand information about wild turkeys interacting with rattlesnakes, I would love to hear about it.
2015 Season almost over?
Well, it’s the last week in October and our eight telemetered rattlesnakes appear to be mostly settled into their winter shelters, despite relatively warm weather. Last year, we still had three telemetered rattlesnakes roaming around well into November (see my “Rattlesnake Update” from 26 November 2014).
This year, one of our telemetered animals has been stationary since 16 September and others have stopped moving since 6 October, 12 October (2 animals), and potentially three more in just the past couple of days. Most interesting of all is that five of them are in the same shelters they used last year – and a sixth may be on his way. This is a departure from behavior observed during my field work in El Dorado County, where the rattlesnakes did not return to the same locations winter-after-winter, although some returned to previously used sites after spending a winter or two in other locations.
This year at Effie Yeaw, our skinny geriatric Male 40 went immobile on 16 September under the same log he shared with Males 35 and 38 and Female 39 last winter. Then Male 35 and Female 39 joined him, arriving on 6 October and 12 October, respectively – although their radio signals indicate that they are not together under the large log. Male 38 is still on the move, even visiting the residents along Edgehill Lane three days ago (26 October). I was unable to gain access to his location due to the necessary residents apparently being away and, when I returned yesterday, I found that he had returned to the hillside within the nature preserve. Male 37 spent a few days in the same area on Edgehill Lane in August 2014 and also returned to the preserve before I could gain access to him. These are the only two times (in two full seasons) that telemetered animals have entered the residential area on the bluff. When this occurs, I try to contact the property owners and would remove the snake, if that’s the property owner’s desire and the snake is accessible. In both cases, however, the rattlesnakes returned to the preserve before I could make contact with the necessary residents. But back to Male 38, he was on the hillside yesterday morning and may be headed back to last year’s log with the others.
Male 37 went directly to the hillside after I released him with a new transmitter on 8 October and I have not detected a change in the location of his radio signal since 12 October – which sounds like the same place he spent last winter (again, refer to my “Rattlesnake Update” from 26 November 2014). Once I’m sure he’s down for the winter, I’ll make the treacherous climb and verify his exact location.
Female 41 arrived on 20 October at the log where she spent last winter. She moved a few meters away over a couple of days but has been back for the past three days, so she may also be done for this season. As far as I could determine last winter, she was alone. Male 46 and Female 53, neither of which were telemetered last winter (i.e., I don’t know where they spent last winter), are very close together under another large log and have been there for at least three days.
It is interesting to note that the rattlesnakes that are already in their winter shelters are not basking, preferring to remain out of sight with body temperatures mostly in the 60–65F range. Earlier in the activity season, when cool nights are followed by warm morning sun, the rattlesnakes come out and warm up by exposing some or all of their skin area, depending on ambient temperature and the intensity of the solar radiation. But in ectotherms (animals that get their body heat from the environment) like rattlesnakes, body temperature varies with the environment and both metabolic rate and water flux increase with higher body temperature, burning more stored energy and using more water. So, on the verge of four or five months of hibernation, the rattlesnakes are likely programmed by evolution to cool off and slow their metabolism, thereby conserving energy and water for use in the spring.
Once I’m sure the snakes are done moving for the year, I’ll summarize the season’s findings in the context of last year’s data and our original questions and study goals.