It took only a few days of moderately warmer weather to stir our sleeping rattlesnakes. I haven’t downloaded my temperature logger recently but it has been easy to notice that it’s in the 50s instead of the 30s the past few mornings, while daytime highs have been in the high 60s.
And today, we found some rattlesnakes stirring. Until now, the body temps of all of the hibernating rattlesnakes have been in the single digits Celsius (less than 50F). Earlier today, ten of twelve telemetered rattlesnakes were in double digits despite a full thick overcast. Male 37 – still inaccessible on the bluff – produced a calculated body temperature of 21C (70F). (The bluff is always warmer because it is steep and faces south, so solar energy is more concentrated per unit of surface area.) Male 37 is clearly no longer deep underground.
Next was Male 46 at 16C (61F) and, sure enough, he was peering out from under the log where he spent the winter.
When we arrived at Female 41’s radio signal, we found a rattlesnake laying out in the grass and assumed it was her. The rattle was not clearly visible at the time but later examination of photographs disclosed white/green paint in the rattle. Female 41 is white/blue and the rattlesnake we observed turned out to be Male 49, marked and released without a transmitter exactly two years ago today, on 10 March 2015! Female 41 was very close but out of sight.
We also found Male 40 laying out in the same spot as last week (see the blog post on 6 March), plus we found a new animal laying in the grass next to another large log where two telemetered adults have been napping since last fall. He (or she) was captured and, while too small for a transmitter, will be measured, marked, and will donate a blood sample before being released as CROR81.
Well, it’s March and many recent days have been sunny and quite warm. Even though daytime highs have been listed in the 50s, that’s measured in shade and the temperature in the sun near the ground is always considerably warmer. So why were rattlesnakes basking in good numbers by late February last year but not yet this year?
There are two parts to the answer. First, most of the snakes spend the winter deep enough underground that they are insulated from daily temperature fluctuations. In other words, they do not feel daytime highs or nightime lows. Deep in their winter shelters, the temperature creeps up or down gradually in response to the mean (average) outside temperature. The second part of the answer is that natural selection tends to remove animals from the gene pool that don’t spend the winter deep enough and/or that venture out too early and get caught in freezing weather. The animals that select optimal winter shelters tend to live longer, and thus produce more offspring carrying the genes for those successful behaviors. (For those of you interested in the evidence for genetic influence on behavior, Time Love and Memory (2000) by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jonathan Weiner is an entertaining and astonishing summary, written in easy-to-understand language but with references to the scholarly research.)
So how do we know the temperature in the underground shelters?
Besides having recorded hourly temperatures for nearly four years with a data logger in a burrow 1 meter (39″) below ground in the Mohave Desert during a previous study, we can routinely calculate body temperatures of the hibernating snakes from the pulse interval of their transmitters during the winter.
The transmitters come from the manufacturer (Holohil Systems Ltd.; www.holohil.com) with a calibration graph showing the correlation between pulse rate and temperature for each transmitter (they vary slightly).
I routinely check the pulse rate in a water bath at room temperature before implanting a transmitter and adjust the mathematical conversion, if it differs slightly from the factory data. Then it is a simple matter in the field to time the pulse interval with a stopwatch and convert that measurement to temperature later. And since the transmitter is implanted inside the snake’s abdominal cavity, transmitter temperature equals core body temperature.
I also record hourly shade air temperatures with a data logger in the nature preserve at Effie Yeaw Nature Center. This gives me a standard local reference against which to compare rattlesnake behavior and look for correlations with weather conditions.
I can then compare rattlesnake behavior, body temperatures and air temperatures. This is especially interesting when one year is compared to another.
You can see about six weeks’ data from this year in the chart above. The fluctuations in mean (average) air temperature (open circles) reflect the daily changes based on cloudy verses sunny days and cold air masses moving through verses warmer southern air (the same factors discussed every day by meteorologists). The five filled circles are the mean body temperatures of the twelve telemetered rattlesnakes on the days that I recorded their data. There are more air temperature records because the data logger records automatically around the clock while rattlesnake body temperatures are only recorded when I visit the study site (which I do less frequently when the animals are inactive).
Now take a look at the corresponding data from last year:
Checking my behavioral observations from last year, I find a few rattlesnakes were starting to bask occasionally by the end of January and most were basking regularly on sunny days by the end of February. Regular basking continued through mid-March. Then, suddenly, between 17 and 19 March, most of the rattlesnakes left their hibernation shelters, as if someone had given them the “all clear” signal. This was multiple rattlesnakes leaving multiple shelters at the same time – pretty amazing! By the way, you may also notice that I visited and recorded data more frequently in February last year. That’s because there were rattlesnakes to see and behavior to record (besides the science; it’s just more fun when there are rattlesnakes to see!).
If I combine the raw data from 2016 and 2017 for comparison, the chart gets pretty messy and trends are hard to make out. But we can create mathematical models for those same data that present a much clearer picture.
You can see that mean February air temperatures started out much lower this year compared to 2016. And, in 2016, with mean air temperatures exceeding 50F by early February and staying there, the rattlesnakes began to bask and their body temps took off as a result. This year, air temps started nearly ten degrees lower, rose briefly, but then took a nosedive in late February, keeping the rattlesnakes cool and underground so far.
Of course, some individuals do not behave in the same manner as most others. I have heard some reports of a few rattlesnakes being sighted in the past few weeks and one dog reportedly bitten already. While none of the telemetered rattlesnakes at Effie Yeaw have emerged from hibernation yet, one rattlesnake without a radio has been basking early – just as he has done each of the past two years. My old skinny Male 40 has been frequently laying in the sun at the entrance to his winter shelter for more than a week.
As you may recall, Male 40 was implanted with a transmitter in 2014 but I removed his second radio last spring and released him without one because he was not producing useful behavioral data. It was not that he was just behaving differently than the others (after all, unusual behavior is interesting and valuable to record), he has been chronically and significantly underweight, appears to be quite old, moves very little during the summer, and has never been found courting a female. Given his poor body condition, I was afraid that he would die during hibernation and his transmitter would not be retrievable. But, even without a radio, he continues to be sighted regularly and has now made it through another winter.
But most others seem to be waiting for some sustained warmer weather before venturing out.
Lots of you have been asking me how the rattlesnakes are doing with all the high water coming down the American River from Folsom and Nimbus Dams.
Well, the telemetered rattlesnakes are all in the oak forest and well above the high water. You may recall that Females 53 and 75 both gave birth to their broods a few months ago out in the flood plain near the usual river channel. And since December, both of their birth sites have been covered periodically by lots of fast-moving water.
The good news is that these females returned to higher ground shortly after their kids completed their neonatal sheds and dispersed from their birth sites in the fall and both have been tucked into their usual winter shelters since cold weather set in. We know that, of course, because of the radio transmitter each carries in her abdomen.
The fate of their babies, on the other hand, is not known. As I have mentioned before, we cannot effectively radio-track the little ones because we do not have tiny transmitters that will last long enough to make surgeries worthwhile. In other words, it is not practical to surgically replace transmitters every few weeks, which would be necessary due to the tiny batteries such transmitters use.
One thing we do know about baby rattlesnakes, however, is that few of them survive their first six months of life. They are frequently encountered in September and October, shortly after birth, but they’re scarce by spring. We know they have many predators when they’re small but it is also not hard to imagine the little ones born in the riverbed remaining there for the winter and perishing in the flood. If so, that is just natural selection in action: those rattlesnakes, adult or baby, that fail to seek higher ground for the winter are less likely to survive and pass their genes on to future generations.
Keep in mind that, on average, if a pair of rattlesnakes – or any other kind of animal – produces more than replacements (i.e., kids that reach maturity and reproduce) for themselves in their lives, we would be swimming in rattlesnakes! Put another way, on average over time in a stable population, animals are just replacing themselves… which means that most offspring never live to adulthood.
If you have been reading my blog for very long, you will have read this before: Nature is a cruel mother! Most wild animals’ lives end in the jaws of another…or sometimes in a flood. That’s just the way it is.
On a brighter note, we started seeing some basking rattlesnakes on sunny days by the end of February last year. So we may well be within a few weeks of the kickoff of the 2017 rattlesnake season! (Remember, watch where you put your hands and feet once the weather turns warm and leave rattlesnakes alone when you encounter them and your chance of being bitten is very near zero!)
With little fanfare over the past two months, the twelve telemetered rattlesnakes have disappeared underground one-by-one and ceased surface activity for the season.
Male 71 was the first to drop out of sight and has been stationary since 7 September. This big guy was first captured and implanted with a transmitter last spring, so we don’t know where he spent past winters. But he took shelter this fall under the same large log used by Males 35 and 40 and Female 39 in the past.
He was followed into winter inactivity by Male 62 on 19 September, Male 37 on 5 October, Male 75 on 7 October, Female 39 on 11 October, Female 41 on 12 October, Female 66 on 17 October, Male 35 and Female 53 on 21 October, and Male 36 about 29 October.
Rather than implant a third transmitter (they must be replaced annually) in our old underweight Male 40 last April, I removed his second transmitter and released him without a radio. During 2014 and 2015, he was the last to leave his winter shelter and the first to return, he moved far less than other telemetered rattlesnakes of either sex, and I have never found him courting a female. He is clearly in his twilight years (I’d love to know how old he is!) and he was not producing useful behavioral data for my study. I bring this up now because he spent the past two winters under the same log with Male 35 and Female 39, as well as other non-telemetered rattlesnakes, and he is back this fall. We have sighted him at this log on 3 and 21 October, as well as yesterday, 12 November.
On 12 October, Male 46 settled into the same winter refuge used by 35, 39, 40, and 71. But between 29 October and 9 November, he moved 70 meters (77 yards) to a spot under the log he used last year. And, for the second winter in a row, he is sharing this site with Female 53. We also spotted non-telemetered Female 55 under this log on 21 October.
After spending most of the summer in a steep inaccessible area high on the bluff (and probably producing a litter of babies), Female 80 showed up at the bottom of the hill on 12 October and stayed in a small area through the end of the month (photo below). But by 9 November, her radio signal indicated she was back near the top of the bluff and will presumably spend the winter there.
Although Male 36 was the second rattlesnake we implanted with a radio in the spring of 2014, you may recall that his first transmitter failed a few months later and he remained missing for a year and a half. As a result, we have no idea where this big impressive guy spent the past two winters. This year, he was one of the last active telemetered rattlesnakes, apparently going underground around 29 October. When he disappeared, however, his radio signal became sporadic and I couldn’t locate him for days at a time. We now know where he is but his signal does not propagate very far. A large abandoned iron water pipe passes through this spot and Male 36 is likely inside that pipe. And we know from experience with telemetered snakes in the metal storm drain that runs under the visitor center that such a pipe dramatically reduces the transmitter’s signal strength.
So, as it stands now, telemetered Males 35, 40 and 71, and Female 39, are together under the same log, along with a few other marked and unmarked rattlesnakes without radios. This will be the third consecutive winter under this log for 35, 39 and 40. Telemetered Male 46 and Female 53 are spending their second straight winter together under another log, likely along with Female 55 (sighted 21 October) and other non-telemetered rattlesnakes. Female 41 is in a void under a large living oak tree for the third year in a row – by herself, so far as I can tell. Male 75 and Female 66, along with several observed unmarked rattlesnakes, are together under yet another large log. Both 75 and 66 are new this year, so I have no previous winter data for them. Male 62 is apparently by himself but I have no prior winter location for him, either.
It is interesting to note that we see very little basking on warm mornings in the fall, unlike spring emergence when the snakes warm themselves in the morning sun for days before finally venturing away from their winter shelters. Remember that the metabolic rate in ectotherms, who rely on their environment for body heat, slows when they are cool. And slow metabolism consumes less stored energy and water. So, in the fall, on the verge of several months of inactivity, it makes sense to simply disappear underground, cool down, and conserve stored resources for use in the spring.
In summary, all of the rattlesnakes for which we have previous winter locations have returned to the same hibernacula each year… three winters in a row for three animals and two consecutive winters for three others. Some individuals seem to spend the winter by themselves but others favor locations with certain other rattlesnakes.
Once again, we are left to contemplate why, when there are many dozens of apparently similar old logs in the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve, do these animals return to and congregate at a tiny number of them. This would not be surprising at higher elevation (or latitude) where winters are severe and suitable shelters to escape freezing temperatures are scarce. But that is not the case at about 20 m (66 feet) above sea level along the American River Parkway where winter temperatures are mild.
As I have speculated before, it would not surprise me to learn that we are watching social behavior of mostly related animals in family groups. Sociality among family members has been shown with genetic evidence in Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) in the Appalachian Mountains and will undoubtedly be discovered in other species. Each of the 80 Effie Yeaw rattlesnakes we have processed has donated a blood sample and the DNA will one day shed light on the validity of this hypothesis at Effie Yeaw!
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!
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).
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).