Rattlesnake Combat: Wrestling, Not Slow Dancing

You may have seen the photos of two rattlesnakes “standing up” next to each other. Half of their bodies are up off the ground, rising from the grass or brush. It looks like a beautiful mating dance, but the reality is even more dramatic.

Those rattlesnakes are actually two males in combat. A third snake, which is female, will be somewhere nearby.

A great example of rattlesnake combat.

If two male rattlesnakes meet while tracking a female rattlesnake, they may begin this combat. The males will raise their heads up together and begin to wrestle. They’ll twist together and try to knock each other against the ground.

They might fight for seconds or many minutes, but the winner of the battle will stay and mate with the female rattlesnake. The losing opponent will generally flee.

Another example of rattlesnake combat.

Sometimes, a young male will approach an older, larger male who is sitting near a female. The older male might chase the younger male away without a fight. We saw one instance where an older male chased a young male off of a small cliff and into a tree.

It seems counterintuitive. Why would rattlesnakes wrestle when they have extremely potent venom? Rattlesnakes are more social than many people realize. They don’t usually bite each other (of course, there can be cases of rattlesnakes biting each other if they confuse a snake for the prey they are tracking). Plus, there’s no reason to waste venom that’s needed for protection against predators and catching meals. Many animals have rutting behavior that is not meant to seriously injure or kill their opponent, but show who’s toughest.

So what do mating rattlesnakes actually look like?

There is a real mating dance that amorous rattlesnakes perform. The male will do a twitching dance with their head against the female. The rattlesnakes will flick their tongues and flip their tails. This dance happens on the ground, without any of the upright posturing that combatting males do.

The real mating dance.

If you see two males fighting in your yard or on a trail, be on the lookout for the nearby female. Do not approach the rattlesnakes and do not let your children or dogs go near the snakes.  This is just one more example of the highly social nature of rattlesnakes.

Wildflower Bloom Means More Rattlesnake Encounters, But Not For the Reasons You’d Think

Going out to photograph Arizona’s spectacular wildflower display is irresistable! The entire desert is beginning to bloom. As more people travel into the desert to see flowers, more people will have rattlesnake encounters.

The weather is perfect for hiking. It’s also perfect for snakes to move. Wildflower photographers may cross paths with rattlesnakes that are trying to complete their springtime tasks. Is this something to worry about? Not really.

Sidewinder rattlesnake in flowers
Sidewinder in the flowers.

More People + Same Number of Snakes = More Snake Encounters

If you’re seeing an increase in snake photographs on Facebook and Instagram, it doesn’t mean that there are more snakes than usual. It just means that there are more people outside. Snakes don’t want to see people, but they need to use this valuable time before temperatures rise. Rattlesnakes will seem more active because more people are accidentally encountering them during the snakes’ normal springtime behavior.

Rattlesnakes don’t have a passion for photographing flowers, but they do love springtime. It’s the time of the year when they begin taking short trips away from their dens to hunt, mate, thermoregulate, and more. Basically, the more Instagram-addicted people are out there taking yoga pose pics with the flowers, the more snake encounters there will be, even if the number of snakes is exactly the same.

Speckled rattlesnake under a plant.
Speckled rattlesnake underneath a plant.

Hikers and photographers may interrupt rattlesnakes travelling across trails. In these situations, the snake might choose to freeze and blend into their surroundings. Snakes don’t realize that their camouflage doesn’t work on open paths.

Snakes see people as predators and don’t want to be eaten, so they might coil or “stand up” in a defensive pose. Rattlesnakes (and several species of nonvenomous snakes) may rattle their tail to scare you away. In most cases, the rattlesnake will retreat when it feels safe enough to do so.

Rattlesnakes may also be encountered while they’re basking. They can use vegetation as partial cover. The combination of shade and sunlight helps them achieve the perfect temperature. They generally bask at the edge of rocks, bushes, dried brush and other plants.

They may be hunting in those areas as well. An increase in flowers can encourage rodents to run around gathering food. Rattlesnakes are hungry after winter brumation and would love a tasty rodent snack.

Does this mean that you should stay inside? Not at all. Go out and enjoy the flowers!

Western diamondback rattlesnake hiding in grass
Western diamondback rattlesnake hiding in the grass.

How to stay rattlesnake safe during the flower bloom:

Rattlesnakes do not want to encounter people. We look like giant predators to them. This is why they act defensively towards us. They will not chase you and they cannot jump.

Here are several rattlesnake safety tips for wildflower photographers:

  • Stay on the trails.
  • Don’t put your feet anywhere that you can’t clearly see.
  • Don’t reach where you can’t see.
  • Wear real shoes, not flip flops.
  • Don’t let small children run ahead where you can’t see the trail.
  • Keep your dogs on a leash so you can control them if a rattlesnake is seen.
  • Look ahead of you when walking.
  • Do not wear headphones or listen to loud music.

If you encounter a rattlesnake during your adventures:

  • Move quickly away from the snake. You do not need to move slowly.
  • Do not attempt to hold, touch or harm the snake.
  • Let people around you know that the snake is on the trail. As soon as the snake feels safe (usually when there aren’t people in sight), it will generally run away.

That’s it! Keep the same rattlesnake safety habits you would any time of year, and remember to take all those stories and photos of rattlesnakes you’re sure to see with a grain of salt.
If you are in one of the Phoenix Mountain Parks, please report your rattlesnake sighting to Rattlesnake Solutions. Your sightings are very important part of our study of rattlesnakes living in urban areas.

Rattlesnake research in the Phoenix parks.
Rattlesnake research is ongoing in the Phoenix Parks.

Are rattlesnakes evolving to rattle less, or losing their rattles?

Nope. But the topic is interesting, regardless.

This is a relatively new myth that’s something to watch, where those of us who regularly work to dispel rattlesnake mythology see spread and grow across the country. It goes something like this:

“Rattlesnakes are losing their rattles [or ability/will to rattle] because the noisy ones are killed by [hogs/hunters/whatever], so the silent ones live and have a bunch of silent babies.”

So ya, if you squint you eyes just right, you can see that this seems at least plausible (and big props to the United States for incorporating the idea of natural selection into pop-mythology). However, there’s a big problem here: there is no evidence whatsoever that says this is happening.

Ya but I see rattlesnakes when I’m hiking and they don’t rattle, so …

Unpopular truth time: people aren’t as good at seeing rattlesnakes as they may think they are. Even super-experienced outdoorsy types who see relatively high numbers of rattlesnakes each year are seeing a small fraction of those they walk right by.

Rattlesnakes don’t often rattle in the wild, even when there’s someone looking at them. This is a great example of confirmation bias. If you hear that rattlesnakes aren’t rattling any longer, and you then see a rattlesnake just sitting there and not rattling, this can serve as confirmation that the rumors are true. You then tell others this is the case, having first-hand experience on the matter, comment on Facebook, etc. Just like that, you’ve become the latest node in the spread of nonsense without realizing it.

This can be even more confusing for long-term hikers with a lot of experience, who report seeing a this phenomenon over time (decades even), where rattlesnakes used to rattle but now most of the rattlesnakes they see don’t: therefore the myth is true. What these anecdotes really look like is something much more simple to explain. Over the years, these people have simply become better at seeing rattlesnakes, and peaceful sightings of rattlesnakes just sitting silent, as they usually do, become more frequent.

Rattlesnakes near busy areas probably do rattle less, but it’s not meaningful; a more plausible explanation.

Studies of how rattlesnakes respond to stress, specifically in urbanized areas, show that they are pretty good at learning and responding to these situations. When rattlesnakes are around a source of constant activity (like a hiking trail, backyard, etc), they may have elevated levels of stress hormones, and behave differently. These stressed snakes tend to spend more time under cover, making small movements and living a stealthy life.

We see the evidence of this clearly in the yards of snowbirds (seasonal Arizona residents) who own homes in the desert areas and leave them unoccupied for half a year or more. When they return, we’re often called about a sudden rattlesnake infestation! Upon investigation, we find that the snakes have always been there, but just learned to avoid the homeowners. Even something as simple as a car coming and going from the driveway each day seems to have a suppressive effect on visible rattlesnake activity at a home. This is most noticeable in areas where long-term development, i.e. older homes and older urban parks, have stabilized and rattlesnakes and people are somewhat used to one another at this point.

On trails, as part of our study of urban rattlesnakes living in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, we’ve learned that rattlesnakes quite often live and hunt right next to trails. Why aren’t these rattlesnakes rattling? Because they have no reason to. These parks get thousands of visitors every weekend: they are simply used to it. If someone lingers or surprises the snake, it will rattle. The rattlesnakes here are most often seen silently slipping away into the rocks and bushes, as they tend to do anywhere.

This Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake lives, with many others, very near a popular hiking trail, but doesn’t care.

Ya but there are rattlesnakes that have evolved to lose their rattles entirely! What about those?

There are several rattlesnake species that have indeed lost their rattles entirely, or are in the evolutionary process of doing so. However, this fact isn’t at all relevant to the this topic. Here’s why:

These rattlesnakes, most famously the Santa Catalina Rattlesnake, live on uninhabited islands off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. They lose their rattles, most likely, because they simply don’t need them, or possibly to help them hunt birds more effectively. The interesting thing to note here is that the way they are losing them is not that they tend to not rattle, but that the physical structure of the rattle itself is changing. Rattlesnakes in these areas, where the large hoofed mammals that prompted the evolutionary origin of the rattle to begin with, still shake the tail and try and rattle. However, with no segments being retained due to a slight change in shape, nothing happens.

Regardless, the fact that there are some rattlesnakes without rattles at all has nothing to do with this new myth. It does often come up in conversations about it though, so worth mentioning here.

Santa Catalina Island Rattlesnake, with no rattle. Photo by Joseph Ehrenberger.

Rattlesnakes rattle when they need to, but seeing a silent rattlesnake is totally normal.

There was an article posted on NPR several years ago that’s particularly annoying, because it serves as verification to many that this is happening. Local news stations, networks like the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, and many other sources seen as authoritative, have no trouble at all reporting that this is true.

There is no evidence of it happening, and as fun as it might be to have something interesting to add to the conversation, evidence is required to declare that something is happening. If someone reads the NPR article (which I will not link here, hoping it will die a slow death and go to bad-reporting hell), the massive claims about broad changes in evolutionary trajectory of rattlesnakes have not been tested, documented, or even written down as far as anyone knows.

So if you’re one of the well-intentioned, well-informed people that tends to drop the “well ACTUALLY” note about silent rattlesnakes when the opportunity comes up, it’s time to stop. You’ve become a unknowing victim of American culture’s love of rattlesnake misinformation.

Schuett, Gordon & N Taylor, Emily & A Van Kirk, Edward & J. Murdoch, Wialliam. (2004). Handling Stress and Plasma Corticosterone Levels in Captive Male Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox). Herpetological Review. 35. 229-233.

Aaron J. Place, Charles I. Abramson “Habituation of the Rattle Response in Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Crotalus atrox,” 2008(4)
Copeia (18 December 2008)

Pitts, Hughes, Mali. Rattlesnake Nuisance Removals and Urban Expansion in Phoenix, Arizona September 2017Western North American Naturalist 73(3):309-3016

Ávila-Villegas, Martins, Arnaud. Feeding Ecology of the Endemic Rattleless Rattlesnake, Crotalus catalinensis, of Santa Catalina Island, Gulf of California, Mexico February 2007Copeia 2007(1):80-84