Where are the rattlesnakes?

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).

A standard conversion graph supplied by the transmitter manufacturer, Holohil Systems. Put simply, the transmitters beep faster when warm and slower when cool and at a predictable rate.

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.

My data logger is located on the north side of a large cottonwood tree near the center of the EYNC nature preserve where it is never exposed to direct sunlight.

I can then compare rattlesnake behavior, body temperatures and air temperatures. This is especially interesting when one year is compared to another.

Some early temperature data for 2017. Note that the daily mean air temperatures vary greatly, depending on weather conditions, while the mean rattlesnake body temperatures tend to be nestled within the fluctuating air temps. These snakes were still underground and not affected by daily high and low temperatures outside.

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:

Early temperature data for 2016. In these data, you will see that mean body temperatures are not buried among the mean daily temperatures. Rather, especially by the middle of February, the mean body temperatures greatly exceed the mean air temperatures. That’s because the animals were out of their shelters and basking in the sun.

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.

These are mathematical models derived from the data in the two charts above. Note the difference between the temperatures of the basking rattlesnakes in 2016, compared to 2017 where the snakes were still underground and their body temperatures were “chasing” the changing environmental temperature, first rising in late January, then leveling off as the weather started to cool, and finally declining as the weather turned cold again in late February.

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.

Male 40 basking in the late morning of 2 March 2017. Rattlesnakes, like other animals, have individual idiosyncrasies, and this animal has been the first to emerge and bask three years in a row. Interestingly, he is typically the last to leave the winter shelter and the first to return in the fall.

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.

Male 36 finally recaptured!

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.

Pre-shed Male 36, with failed transmitter, at Refuge 01, Effie Yeaw Nature Center, on 11 May 2016, moments before his recapture. Original RAW IMG_1531.CR2
Pre-shed Male 36, with failed transmitter, at The Community Center on 11 May 2016, moments before his recapture. If you look closely (partly obscured by grass), you can make out the new light-colored rattle segment forming under the skin at the rattle base.

 

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.

Male 36 disappearing into
Male 36 disappearing into The Community Center yesterday with a new transmitter and re-marked rattle (his rattle is quite long and likely to break soon, potentially taking his original paint with it). Note how clean and crisp his pattern appears after shedding, compared to the photo above.

 

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!

 

 

Interesting rattlesnake news

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.

Here is a PowerPoint slide of Male 01
Here is a PowerPoint slide I use to illustrate how marking the rattles helps to judge growth and shedding frequency. The photos are of my Male #1. It also demonstrates how the rattle breaks over time. According to my friend, the 2011 paint is now just two segments from being lost but the snake is big,  healthy, and thriving. You can see that, once the early tapered segments are gone, the rattle offers little insight into the age of the snake.

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.

Rattlesnake intelligence?

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).

For more interesting videos of natural predatory behavior by rattlesnakes, go to Rulon’s YouTube page.