The first of our four pregnant rattlesnakes has given birth since last Thursday (between September 8 and 12).
The animated GIF file above shows Female 54 in the foreground inside a hollow log and still pregnant (note the scales pulled apart on her abdomen) but with babies crawling over her on both sides. Female 39 is in the background and no longer pregnant. Since these are the only two females I have seen gestating in this hollow log this year, I believe the kids belong to Female 39. The video was recorded with our BurrowCam, actually a Ridgid Tools inspection camera that can be inserted up to three feet into burrows, logs and other narrow chambers.
As you know if you have been reading this blog for very long, mom and babies stay together for a week or a little longer, until the kids shed the corneal layer of their skin for the first time. After that, they go their separate ways to forage for food before hibernation. Thus, if my telemetered females are in sync with the larger population, baby rattlesnakes should begin appearing on the trails around the fourth week in September.
This is Female 39’s third brood in four years. Each time she has reproduced since I have been monitoring her, she has made a beeline to the same spot in the blackberry thicket on the other side of San Lorenzo Way as soon as the kids leave home. Apparently fall rodent hunting is very good there! We’ll see if she stays true to form this season.
Just a brief update to report that three or our six telemetered females (41, 39 and 53) have returned to the shelters where they have delivered broods in past years and all look quite heavy. Another, Female 66, is also stationary in a hollow log with a full abdomen but she did not reproduce last year and, since 2016 was our first year monitoring her, we don’t know where she has gestated in the past. Female 75, who did produce kids last year, is not heavy, still on the move, and looks like she will skip this year. Female 80 was on the hillside at the bluff but I have recently lost her radio signal. She was heavy and I could not palpate embryos when I replaced her transmitter in early June but she had lots of material in her GI tract which complicates the exam. Hopefully, her new transmitter has not failed…
Our females continue to often produce offspring during consecutive years, sometimes three years in a row before taking a year off. As mentioned before, this is not the norm for temperate-latitude pitvipers. While annual reproduction is common in the tropics where it never gets cold, the shorter warm season this far from the equator usually means that females need a year or two between broods to replace body fat before they can reproduce again. Conditions for our rattlesnakes are obviously quite good (even in past “drought” years), allowing them to replenish their weight quickly after losing 30%–50% of their body mass when they give birth.
Finally, I thought you’d find this photo interesting. Our big beautiful Male 37 was just in for his transmitter change two days ago and had obviously consumed a ground squirrel just before I captured him.
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.
Before I launch into what’s been going on with the Effie Yeaw rattlesnakes over the past few weeks, I want to pass on a link to a recent interview with Dr. Bree Putman. Bree was a grad student with Matt Holding (lead author of the journal article I linked to in my last post) in Emily Taylor’s lab at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before she moved on to Rulon Clark’s lab at San Diego State to finish her Ph.D. In Bree’s interview (click here), she talks about ground squirrels and northern Pacific rattlesnakes and she describes some of the very intriguing behavioral questions many of us would love to answer.
Back to EYNC rattlesnakes –
I have not seen a courting pair of rattlesnakes since 28 April, when three rattlesnake pairs were found together in different locations. Male 37 was found with unmarked adults that were likely females on 11 and 14 May but no courtship was observed. But as the spring courtship season wound down, California ground squirrels began producing pups and the emphasis of both rattlesnake sexes turned to hunting.
After not finding a telemetered rattlesnake in or very near a ground squirrel burrow during the first 400+ observations this year, Male 46 was found in an ambush coil facing an active burrow a foot away on 9 May. In the five weeks since, several rattlesnakes have been found close to or inside squirrel burrows on several occasions.
At the same time, the snakes have also been hunting heavily in vole (aka: meadow mouse; Microtus californicus) tunnels in the grass.
And since about the end of May, the rattlesnakes – especially males – have been shedding.
Periodically shedding the corneal layer of the skin (called ecdysis; for more info, click here) takes snakes out of commission for a week or more and males seem to put it off during the spring mating season. It’s a bit like race car drivers waiting for a yellow caution flag to make a pit stop!
Even more interesting is that the rattlesnakes have favorite places where they go during this process and it is not uncommon to find several pre-shed individuals of both sexes together this time of year. Like hibernation, there seem to be many logs and burrows where they could shelter while waiting to shed but they congregate in just a few of them. Those of us who study rattlesnake behavior would love to know why. What is so special about certain locations? Or is it something else… like family ties or some other social interaction?
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.
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).
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 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!
You may remember from my last post that pregnant Female 53 had made a surprising move of more than 220 yards near the end of August and was discovered, apparently by herself, in a small burrow at the edge of the river bottom. Interestingly, after monitoring her there for a week, she turned up back in the original refuge on 8 September. Although I have not been able to get a look at her with the BurrowCam, the burrow she was in for a week is empty and I have no reason to believe that she’s not still pregnant.
Then, last Thursday (September 10), I found three significant developments when I visited this same birthing refuge occupied by expecting Females 39, 47 and 53. First, Female 39 was gone, with a distant weak radio signal. Second, I finally got a direct look at some babies – either three of them or the same one three times, crawling around inside the refuge (photo below)! Interestingly, the one(s) I saw had shed; they were brightly marked and their little two-lobed rattle buttons were uncovered. That, of course, means that they were around 10–14 days old and ready to leave. And, third, one of the visible adults was jerking and chin-rubbing on Female 47 – sure signs of a courting male (click here for a courtship video). This guy had no paint in his rattle, so he’s new but he was inaccessible inside the shelter. But the fall portion of the courtship season has definitely begun.
Female 39 was already postpartum, so her departure was not surprising. But her offspring should have left (or be leaving) at the same time. The post-shed kid(s) I saw could have been her’s or Female 47’s. When I tracked down Female 39’s radio signal, she was in the blackberry thicket on the other side of San Lorenzo Way, laying in diffuse sunlight and sporting a very recent food bulge (just behind the U-shaped bend in her neck in the photo, below). Interestingly, this annually-reproducing female had her babies in the same refuge last year and, when she departed, she immediately made the same long move to the same spot in the same berry thicket – on 15 September 2014. Apparently this is the best place to find a good meal when you finally get the kids out of the house!
As of the morning of 14 September, all females except 53 had left their gestation shelters. I came across Female 47 crawling in the grass, so I maneuvered in front of her and shot some video as she crawled toward me. Although I remained motionless, I think she detected me as she got within two or three feet, because she started carrying a slight “S” bend in her neck, which I interpret as a defensive precaution in case she needed to strike and bite (when not feeling threatened, they usually extend the neck when crawling, as in the first half of the video). I was accidentally kneeling almost on top of a ground squirrel burrow and she dove into it when she found it. Click here to see the 28-second video.
A short time later, I found that Female 54 had also departed from her gestation refuge but had made it only a few dozen meters. Her partly eaten carcass was laying in the edge of a trail just a few feet from where an adult turkey had been killed and eaten a couple of weeks ago. Her blood had not yet coagulated and the exposed tissue was still moist and glistening. In recent weeks, I’ve frequently seen one or two of the now almost grown coyote pups in this area and there has been coyote scat everywhere. I have no doubt that one of them got her.
Then, at the shelter used for the past couple of months by Females 39, 47 and 53 – and still occupied by 53, I came across a freshly shed youngster a couple of feet outside of his birth refuge.
Assuming that Female 53 delivers a brood soon, our six monitored females will probably have contributed nearly 50 baby rattlesnakes to Effie Yeaw’s Nature Preserve (average litter size is 8). But remember that, on average over time in a stable population, a female rattlesnake (or any other species) only produces a replacement for herself and a mate in her lifetime that survive to reproduce themselves. Otherwise, the population increases or decreases.
The vast majority of offspring never live long enough to pass on their genes. Of course, there are cycles between predator and prey species. When predator numbers are up, they soon knock the prey population down, which eventually results in a reduction of predators as food becomes scarce. Then, as predator numbers decline, the prey population begins to increase again… and the saga continues. Remember what I’ve said before: it’s a violent world out there and Nature is a cruel mother; most wild creatures’ lives end in the jaws of another!
First a quick general update: Spring courtship seems to be over; I have not seen a courting pair since 16 May. Since the end of May, the pregnant females have taken up refuge in ideal shelters where they can thermoregulate optimally. Females 39 and 41 are now in the same shelters where they gave birth last year (but not together) and Female 47 is with 39. Female 54 is by herself and has not moved since we implanted a transmitter and released her on 23 May. Neither 47 nor 54 were telemetered last year so I have no history for them. These soon-to-be mothers are all maintaining body temperatures within a couple of degrees of 30C (86F). The males and Female 53 (not pregnant?) have been hunting, mostly hanging around California ground squirrel burrows for the past month as the squirrels produce the first pups of the season (more on hunting ground squirrels) and the body temperatures of these foraging snakes has varied widely compared to the pregnant females (more on body temps).
In my last post, I showed you a photo of an unidentified rattlesnake in the refuge with Female 41 – the same refuge where Females 41 and 43 had babies last year. (You may remember that Female 43 was found dead at the refuge last October; click here for that account) While I could only see the new snake’s nose and a small area of flank at the first encounter, I saw her twice more over the next eight days. She was shades of dark brown, while Female 41 is quite pretty with chocolate brown dorsal blotches on a gray background. During the subsequent two sightings, I could also see the new animal’s rattle, which was long and unbroken (i.e., she still had her birth button). Then a week ago, I found Female 41 and the new rattlesnake basking next to each other and was able to capture the new animal (CROR55).
The first thing I noticed was that she was pre-shed. That is, her eyes and new rattle segment were milky white (more about shedding below). The next important discovery was that she is, indeed, a female – and quite heavy…maybe pregnant. A photo of her snout (bottom photo, below), when compared to the nose in the photos of the unidentified rattlesnake on 3 June (top photo, below) confirms that she is the same animal.
I have numbered some landmark scales in these photos that you can compare but also compare the size and arrangement of surrounding unnumbered scales. And while the fine pigmentation of the individual scales is obscured in the pre-shed photo, I have circled some larger pigmented areas that are visible. Keep in mind that the photos were taken from slightly different angles, making some scales that are visible in one hard or impossible to see in the other. The size, number, and arrangement of nose and crown scales on these rattlesnakes are a bit like fingerprints on primates: they are individually unique, so far as we know. Also note the whitish eyes and how the scales on her nose appear a bit swollen in the pre-shed photo.
As I examined her further, I made another interesting discovery: she has sustained a serious injury to her abdomen sometime in the past. Although well healed now, her skin is scarred on the dorsal midline 575 mm (23 in) from her nose (her body length, excluding tail [snout-vent length or SVL] is 720 mm [28 in]). Furthermore, her body is noticeably narrowed at the scar (photo below) and her abdomen is hard and dense to the touch for several inches on both sides of the scar.
Nonetheless, she looks and acts healthy and might, indeed, be pregnant. I could feel two masses in her anterior abdomen that were consistent with fetuses but could not differentiate anything posteriorly where her abdomen is apparently scarred internally. She would normally be a great transmitter candidate but I elected to release her without one because of the suspected internal scarring where the transmitter would be implanted, plus I did not want to damage her skin as she prepares to shed.
This brings up the point that life is not easy for these snakes. In addition to this healed injury to Female 55 and the death of Female 43 last year, you may remember that I processed and released a small male (CROR44) early last December that had recently sustained some significant trauma from a predator, including a deep penetrating abdominal wound that I suspected would prove fatal over the winter (more details). While processing Male 52 early last month, I removed a “foxtail” (a seed from one of the non-native Bromus grasses that blanket the preserve) from his cloaca (cloaca defined). This little floral harpoon had not yet caused much damage but I don’t know what would have prevented it from burrowing into his abdomen and causing a potentially fatal injury. My point is that these rattlesnakes, despite their formidable reputation, are susceptible to constant hazards.
Shedding (the technical term is ecdysis) is the sloughing or molting of the outer epidermal layer (the stratum corneum) in scaled reptiles. This corneal layer is a matrix of keratin (the same material as your hair and fingernails – and the rattlesnake’s rattle!) infused with lipid (fat) molecules that greatly slows the passage of water through the skin. Because this matrix is acellular (contains no cells), it cannot grow. Thus, as the snake grows, this layer must be replaced periodically. When the time comes, the snake’s body produces a new corneal layer under the old one. This creates the blue or whitish tint, most notable in the eyes. In rattlesnakes, a new segment is produced at the base of the rattle during each shed, which is also whitish at this stage. Once the new corneal layer is ready, the snake’s body secretes fluid between the old and new layers, separating them and softening the old one. When this fluid is secreted, the whitish color disappears (the eyes clear) and the snake is ready to shed. They then rub their face on any available surface and start to peel back the old layer from around the nose and mouth (photo below). They continue rubbing, eventually crawling out of the old “skin,” leaving it inside-out, usually in one piece.
I’ll leave it there until next time, when I’ll explain rattle growth and trying to estimate age from the rattle.