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.
We currently have transmitters implanted in six female rattlesnakes. We have been tracking Female 39 since 2014 and Females 41 and 53 since 2015 and all are currently pregnant and in their gestation shelters where they will likely thermoregulate for six weeks or more. Furthermore, they have all produced a brood during each season we have been following them, so this will be the third year in a row for Female 39 and the second in a row for 41 and 53. And we don’t know how many consecutive years they might have reproduced before that! Each has returned to the same gestation refuge each year, although 41 uses a different location than 39 and 53, who gestate together. We have also found pregnant unmarked females in both places in past seasons with these girls.
That’s not all. We have three new females this season, numbers 66, 75 and 80. These snakes do not appear to have settled into gestation shelters yet (and I don’t know where they were in previous years) but I just implanted a transmitter in Female 80 a few weeks ago and could feel six fetuses in her belly…it felt like she had swallowed six soft ping pong balls! I’m not sure about the reproductive status of 66 and 75, since their surgeries were earlier in the year and both had so much material in their intestines that it made identifying small embryos with confidence difficult.
Another opportunity to assess the health and growth of the rattlesnakes at Effie Yeaw Nature Center occurred day-before-yesterday (13 July) when Kelly came across an adult rattlesnake at the end of the Visitor Center building early in the morning. Per protocol, she expertly maneuvered it into the capture bag and deposited it in the holding barrel for me. It turned out to be Male 52, a rattlesnake previously captured, processed, and released without a transmitter early in May 2015. At that time, he was 30.7 inches in total length and weighed 11.6 ounces. He now measures 33.5 inches and weighs 18.9 ounces. While increasing 9% in length and 63% in mass in 14 months, he has shed three times (see photo below).
The constant growth of all the rattlesnakes being sampled and the annual reproduction of many of the females attests to the health of not just the rattlesnake population but the overall small animal community in the riparian habitat at Effie Yeaw Nature Center. While the region is undeniably in a severe long-term drought, enough local rainfall has occurred to keep the annual plants, shrubs, some trees, and the food web they support healthy.
Finally, I want to share with you a little bit about a presentation I made at the annual Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists last week in New Orleans. I have reproduced the published abstract (summary) of my talk below. Please excuse the Latin names. Crotalus scutulatus is the scientific term for the Mohave rattlesnake and Crotalus oreganus is our own northern Pacific rattlesnake. While recent drought has not yet affected the rattlesnakes or their prey in the areas of northern California I have sampled, 2002 was a rainless year in the Mohave Desert, with no plant growth and a dramatic reduction in the availability of kangaroo rats and other small mammals that make up the great majority of the rattlesnakes’ diet there. During 2002, Mohave rattlesnakes changed their behavior very significantly, staying tightly coiled and avoiding wind and sun while moving very little and not courting or mating.
The take-home message I delivered in New Orleans was that (1) these animals are used to hot dry summers and get most of their water from their prey; (2) regional drought does not necessarily equal local drought; (3) rattlesnake behavior is probably not affected by drought until prey availability is affected; (4) water-stressed rattlesnakes minimize exposed skin by remaining coiled most of the time; (5) when water-stressed, they don’t move more, they move a lot less than usual; and (6) there is no evidence that they leave their normal home range during a drought.
In other words, there is zero evidence to support the frequent news media claims that drought drives rattlesnakes into yards.
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.
Checking on our pregnant female rattlesnakes this morning disclosed another brood of kids in a different location. These appear younger than the ones discovered with Female 55 last night because their eyes are not yet cloudy white. Although only one was observed with the BurrowCam (see 19 second video), it is almost certain that there are more. Eight is the average litter size for Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes. However, these kids are also deep underground and, like those found last night, have only been observed with the BurrowCam.
Clearly, there will be baby rattlesnakes roaming around the American River Parkway within a few days, and some may have already shed and emerged from their mothers’ gestation shelters. Remember, the lack of snow pack and low reservoir levels have not affected the rodents and lizards along the American River, so the rattlesnakes are fat and healthy. Click here for more on how drought affects rattlesnake behavior.
Remember that, while venomous and dangerous, bites from baby rattlesnakes tend to be far less dangerous than bites by medium and large rattlesnakes. Clinical data comparing bites by rattlesnakes of different sizes clearly shows that big rattlers are more dangerous. Click here for a PDF of “Large snake size suggests increased snakebite severity in patients bitten by rattlesnakes in southern California” (2010, Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 21:120–126).
The idea that babies are more dangerous is likely the most common rattlesnake myth. Regardless of how much of their venom babies inject, adult rattlesnakes have a lot more venom, so are capable of much worse bites. Think about it: laboratories that produce venom to sell to pharmaceutical companies and other research institutions do not want baby snakes, they want big snakes because they produce a lot more venom. Data from these labs indicate that the venom yield from three-foot rattlesnakes is 100X the yield from one-foot juveniles. The photos below are actual venom extractions from a nearly three-foot male (left) and a 13-inch newborn (right) Mohave Rattlesnakes. I’d take a bite from the little one rather than the adult any day!
So there will be little rattlesnakes, about the size of pencils, around wooded and brushy areas for the next couple of months. To be sure, while their bites are less dangerous than bites by bigger snakes, any rattlesnake bite requires evaluation in a hospital emergency department without delay. By spring, the babies will be much more scarce because the little guys have many more predators than the adults.
Field studies of rattlesnakes indicate that they cease most movement when water stressed and remain in their established home ranges, rather than migrating into developed areas in search of water, despite frequent claims to the contrary.
In my last post, I mentioned witnessing Females 41 and 47 feeding, as well as finding new Female 53, who was very heavy and likely pregnant. Since then, I have come across Female 41 eating another vole, found another new female (#54) that is heavy and definitely pregnant, and come across a fat but unidentified rattlesnake in the refuge where Females 41 and 43 had babies last year. I could only see the face and a bit of a flank of the unidentified animal (photo below) so I couldn’t even determine sex.
It could be a male that has just eaten a ground squirrel pup – but it is more likely another pregnant female. We now have five telemetered females (39, 41, 47, 53 and 54) and all are in great shape, with three either confirmed or likely pregnant and the others in good shape to reproduce although I have not yet had my hands on them this year to palpate for fetuses.
This brings up a timely point: This will obviously be a good year for rattlesnake reproduction in our area, despite being in the midst of an historic drought. Since the news media often quotes “experts” claiming drought “drives rattlesnakes out of the hills and into yards looking for water,” this is a great opportunity to set the record straight about how drought affects rattlesnake movement.
We live in a Mediterranean climate, historically characterized by warm dry summers and cool wet winters. Even during years with “normal” precipitation, vast tracks of mountains, foothills and many valley areas have no surface water between late spring and the return of winter rains in November or December – yet they support healthy populations of rattlesnakes. Herbivores (insects, rodents, etc.) get most of their water from the plants they eat and rattlesnakes get water from eating the herbivores. The bodies of terrestrial vertebrates are usually composed of 65–75% water, so eating a 100 gram (3.5 ounce) rodent is like drinking about 70 grams (2.5 ounces) of water for a rattlesnake (plus the nutrients and energy gained). Make no mistake, rattlesnakes suck droplets from various surfaces, including their own skin, deposited by rain and dew (photo, below) and they will certainly drink from standing water when it’s available. But especially during summer and fall, these other sources are not available and virtually all of the water a rattlesnake needs is obtained from its prey.
Rattlesnakes are models of low energy physiology. As ambush predators, they move comparatively little and rely largely on anaerobic metabolism. Their sedentary lifestyle combined with the corneal layer of their skin (full of water-blocking lipids) dramatically lowers the amount of water that passes into and out of their bodies – known as “water flux.” Nonetheless, multiple studies have shown that the most significant mechanism for water loss in terrestrial snakes is evaporation, with about 75% being lost through the skin and the remainder via exhaled breath.
During my four-year field study (2001–2004) of Mohave Rattlesnakes in southern California, I was able to compare behavior, including average daily movement and reproductive effort, between the severe drought year 2002 and 2003–2004, when rainfall returned to average or above average. I found that average daily movement during 2002 was less than one third of 2003–2004 averages. And while I encountered dozens of courting pairs during the two non-drought years, I observed a male courting a female on only one occasion in 2002. Yet these rattlesnakes continued to eat at a rate indistinguishable from the non-drought years, based on scats deposited in holding containers and later analyzed. These snakes were reducing exposed surface area (and, therefore, evaporative water loss) by remaining coiled and immobile, covering much of their skin within their coils. They even buried their coils partially in loose soil at times, covering additional skin area. Remaining stationary eliminated their ability to find and court mates but, as sit-and-wait ambush predators, it allowed them to continue to hunt – and obtain the body water of their herbivorous prey. They also positioned themselves behind vegetation and ground contours in 2002 to avoid wind and sun, both of which increase evaporation rates. You can find more details in my MS thesis.
We have seen similar behavior in Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes in recent years at my El Dorado Hills study site, where the rattlesnakes remained tightly coiled and stationary in deep chaparral on north-facing slopes during particularly hot dry summer weather. At Effie Yeaw, all of the rattlesnakes caught by staff around the ponds during the past year, as well as the telemetered rattlesnakes I have found there, have been males found during the courtship season. The females have remained in the woods, away from water sources. While the snakes will drink when they find the ponds (or other water sources), that’s not why the males are there… they’re wandering around looking for females! And, yet, the females are now fat and pregnant.
Drought probably does not affect rattlesnake movement until it becomes locally severe, as it did at my Mohave Rattlesnake study site in 2002. When the snakes start to become water stressed, they don’t set out into uncharted territory looking for surface water. Rather, they stop moving and hunker down where they can best reduce evaporative water loss while still striking any prey that wanders by. Currently, if the preserve at Effie Yeaw Nature Center is any indication, there is lots of annual plant growth and the vole and ground squirrel populations are thriving – and so are the rattlesnakes.
So when people find a rattlesnake in their yard during a drought, the most likely explanation is that it is a male looking for receptive females and the drought is not severe enough locally to stress the rattlesnakes. When they are truly water stressed, rattlesnakes move less – not more – than usual. Unlike most large mammals that have much higher metabolic and water flux rates and require standing water to drink, there is no evidence that rattlesnakes leave their established home ranges looking for water, despite the popular belief to the contrary. They do just the opposite.