Is this photograph of a giant rattlesnake from Arizona real? That question has dominated my inbox for the last few days, so here’s the answer.
Yes, this photo is 100% real. There is no photoshop involved whatsoever.
However, the snake is not nearly as large as it’s made out to be. It appears to be a standard-sized adult Western Diamondback Rattlesnake for Arizona at around 3′ long.
This is yet another example of an illusion called forced perspective. In real life, your stereoscopic vision (two eyes) gives you depth perception, so you can clearly see that things that are closer to you aren’t actually larger. However, a camera just has one eye – the lens – so it isn’t always as apparent.
But why isn’t it obvious? It’s a no-brainer that closer things look larger on camera. It’s likely the subject matter. If someone held up an every day thing, like a water bottle, you’d not immediately share the photo with your Facebook friends about someone drinking from a 6′ tall bottle. The fact that the subject is a rattlesnake seems to short circuit that part of the brain, and you’re left staring at what seems to your eyes a very, very large rattlesnake.
Exactly why this same photo keeps popping up, though, reported from different cities, states, and even claims to be the photographer, are more interesting. For whatever reason, these photos are useful vehicles to get attention, and many people on social media eat it up. The first two locations I’ve seen were Peoria, AZ and Oro Valley, AZ … so the real location is probably one of those.
So it’s a rattlesnake alright, there’s nothing at all extraordinary about this situation.
An article has been going around showing a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake sitting high in a tree, prompting many emails and messages asking about its validity.
This is normal behavior: rattlesnakes can and do climb trees, though it is not commonly observed. There is no reason to think that the series of photos was faked, staged, shopped, or anything but a totally natural observation.
How do we know that? We see rattlesnakes in trees sometimes. A variety of species in very different areas all find some need to occasionally wander up the bark of a tree. Over the years, I have personally seen Blacktailed Rattlesnakeds, Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, Speckled Rattlesnakes, Tiger Rattlesnakes, and Banded Rock Rattlesnakes in branches over my head. Additionally, Timber Rattlesnakes and other east-coast species have been repeatedly seen high in the trees.
An example: here’s a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake I saw just last night. It was disturbed by my flashlight and fled into the bushes … where it suddenly started to climb. It went higher and higher, and was still up there when I passed through the area again hours later. This snake decided the best escape route was: up.
Here’s a Blacktailed Rattlesnake seen on a job site by Jeff Martineau, one of our field team, as it ascended a tree. Blacktails are known to climb like this, possibly to hunt birds and squirrels.
Here’s another Blacktail, which I saw from the edge of a road high in a tree, clearly not photoshopped 😉
Why do rattlesnakes climb trees?
There are probably a variety of reasons why a rattlesnake would climb a tree, but in most cases, I would assume that it’s to access prey. If you’re able to get off the ground, a lot of potential prey items, like birds and squirrels. They may also climb to escape predators, to stay cool, or to escape potential flood water during the monsoon season.
Are rattlesnakes going to drop out of the trees?
Almost certainly not. I suppose a snake could happen to make a mistake and fall out, and if you’re walking by right at that second you could possibly have a rattlesnake falling out of a tree onto you. But that’s an extremely remote, chance circumstance that isn’t worth worrying about.
You may have heard friends from the east claim that water moccasins routinely jump from trees into the canoe, too … but we’ll just gently say that they are completely full of it. Sure, it’s possible that someone scared a snake at the right time but and there are likely a handful of “lightning strike” type scenarios where this has possibly happened, but it’s not what they “do”. It’s like saying that the handful of dogs each year who accidentally disengage a parking brake and end up rolling the car down the street qualify the statement of “dogs drive cars”. Just think it through.
Does this mean they can climb the wall and get into my yard?
Not at all. Rattlesnakes can climb if there are sufficient rough surfaces to grip, which excludes your block wall or rattlesnake fence (if it’s installed properly) While they clearly can and do climb, they’re not nearly as good at it as a snake like a Gophersnake, Kingsnake, or Coachwhip, which are built for the task. If you’ve got a secured yard without “footholds” for lack of a better term, you should not expect rattlesnakes in the yard.
Here’s a video explaining how rattlesnakes climb … or don’t … smooth surfaces.
To close: a note to those on social media who like to shout answers on topics they don’t know much about: stop it 🙂 A simple google search in advance would have shown you how often rattlesnakes are actually found in trees, and that it’s totally normal. Here are some other videos of this behavior that I’ve found out there:
Better late than never – rattlesnakes are giving birth, even without the rain. One of the services we offer are serial property inspections, to continuously monitor properties to evaluate possible rattlesnake activity and provide recommendations to landscapers, pest control, and property managers.
We have been inspecting this particular property for many years, and this is the most interesting thing found there to date.
On the previous inspection, Greyson noted a shed skin in an area at the edge of the property. Knowing a fresh shed during this hot and dry period could indicate an estivation den nearby, he focused on that spot during his visit yesterday, and, whoa.
Here is what was found: a late-season estivation den with a mixed bag of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, with one having given birth in the recent past, and another in a deep blue phase (preparing to shed skin)
While this is not entirely unusual, what is different about this year is that we are seeing that rattlesnakes are having their babies later than usual, and they are doing so in their estivation dens instead of moving to their usually-preferred birthing spots.
This is likely a response to our exceptionally hot (the hottest on record) summer and near-complete lack of rain. This is similar to a recent visit to a home by Dave in Tucson (I’ll be posting this shortly as well) where he captured a total of 14 rattlesnakes.
Are rattlesnakes giving birth later this year than normal?
According to our observations and activity on the relocation hotline: yes, it appears that rattlesnakes are having babies later this year than usual. In a normal year, we start to receive our first calls to capture groups of mother Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes with their newborn babies in early July, usually hitting its peak around the first week of August, then trickling in here or there until around the first week of September. This year, it took much longer for this to be normal, only now (mid-August) has it become routine.
Likewise, rattlesnakes seen in informal surveys and in our study of rattlesnakes in the Phoenix Mountain Preserve have shown that Western Diamondback Rattlesnake and Tiger Rattlesnakes that would have likely given birth by now are still languishing in a gravid (pregnant) state at estivation dens.
While this is in no way a full representation of what’s happening out there, but does represent 10 years of data collection and informal survey observations. It should also be noted that while this is the case in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, it is unlikely to represent behavior in other regions.
Why are baby rattlesnakes being born later this year than usual?
This year makes that a little bit tougher than normal. If monsoon rain triggers pregnant rattlesnakes to give birth, what happens when there is no rain at all?
They have to give birth eventually … so what we are seeing is this: The mother rattlesnakes are staying at estivation sites (spots selected to hide away during the hottest summer months) far longer than they normally would. Rather than moving to a birthing site as they normally would, they are having their babies right in place.
This likely isn’t good for the babies, ultimately and unfortunately. They lose moisture more than twice as quickly as adults (J. Agugliaro, H. Reinert 2005). Unless we get some rain soon, that could be big trouble for this year’s babies. We’re hoping for the best, but looking at the forecast … hoping is all there is to do.
How homeowners can keep baby rattlesnakes out of the yard
Keeping the smallest rattlesnakes out of your area is a bit different than the larger ones.
First, the space they need to get in is much smaller … anything more than about a third of an inch can allow access. Second, they make frequent movements and may not necessarily know where they’re going. Unlike adults, who’ve had a lifetime to map out a homerange, babies may show up any place, any time. For that reason, physical barriers are the best bet. Rather than go too far into detail here, I’ll refer you to our guide to keep baby rattlesnakes out of the yard.
Schuett, G.W., Repp, R.A., Hoss, S.K. and Herrmann, H.‐W. (2013), Parturition in a Desert Rattlesnake. Biol J Linn Soc Lond, 110: 866-877. doi:10.1111/bij.12166
Agugliaro J, Reinert HK. Comparative skin permeability of neonatal and adult timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus). Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 2005;141(1):70-75. doi:10.1016/j.cbpb.2005.04.002
A common request from homeowners and something I see people comment about quite often is the idea of capturing, buying, or importing kingsnakes and gophersnakes to release in the yard as a means to control rattlesnakes.
Kingsnakes, as you may be aware, are famous for making meals of venomous rattlesnakes. They completely harmless (even to kids and dogs) and even nice to look at. Because of their rattlesnake-eating preferences, many homeowners are more than happy to see a kingsnake cruising through the yard.
So why wait for nature to bring the kings to your yard? Can’t you just buy one at the pet store and let it go? How about someone in town who’s caught a wild one and does’t want it? Why not bring in a bunch of them to release and then never see a rattlesnake again? Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
It’s increasingly common to see requests like this on Facebook and Nextdoor, where communities of rattlesnake-averse homeowners compare snake experiences. “You don’t want that kingsnake? Bring it to my yard!”. There are also suggestions (and admissions) of buying kingsnakes from the petstore to release. Please, never do this.
Releasing kingsnakes into your yard is not a good idea and almost certainly will not help your rattlesnake issues.
Bubble burst: if your yard has sufficient food sources and resources to support a kingsnake, you already have one. The population and distribution of kingsnakes (and other snakes) is a complicated balance of predator and prey, intraspecies dynamics. It’s like pouring water onto a flat surface expecting it to pile up; the kingsnake you release will almost certainly just wander off, not to be seen again.
If you have rattlesnakes in the yard, you also have kingsnakes already hunting them. You may not see them very often, but moving around unseen is kind of a snakes’ thing. You could release as many kingsnakes into the yard as you want. If there isn’t sufficient food for them, they’re out!
Worse, unless you live in the same area as it’s used to so that it can resume its life, your new pest control idea will probably die out there.
Even worse than that, if you’re bringing kingsnakes in from other areas, you run the risk of spreading parasites and disease to the existing group of kings — your efforts to have more kingsnakes have a chance to make you have no kingsnakes.
What can you do to get more kingsnakes in the yard?
There is one way 🙂 but you’re not going to like it. Get more rattlesnakes! Really though, prey opportunities are the best way to attract any snake to the yard. Unfortunately, you can’t really do that without also attracting the snakes you don’t want around, too.
It seems the idea of introducing kingsnakes to your yard to keep rattlesnakes away just isn’t as helpful as it may seem. Just stick to the basics of keeping snakes out of the yard and if a kingsnake shows up to help, that’s great! But she doesn’t need any help.
This goes for Gophersnakes and Bullsnakes too. These snakes, by the way, don’t actually eat rattlesnakes like the saying goes … but that’s for another article.
Sometimes, but it’s not an absolute, and should not be used as a single method for identification of either species.
The general rule is that Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes have a banding on the tail in a roughly 1:1 ratio of white to black, while Mojave Rattlesnakes tend to have tail banding at 2:1 white to black. However, it can be much more complex than that.
While it is generally true that Mojave Rattlesnakes tend to have wider white bands compared to Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes, this can be problematic. Both Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes and Mojave Rattlesnakes have banded tails with a high degree of variability in color, pattern, and complexity.
Here is a video that explains all of this:
In general, when identifying a rattlesnake, it is not advised to focus on any single feature. Instead, more accurate identifications can be made by looking at the gestalt, or overall appearance and culmination of attributes of the animal. The tail banding is one feature that can be a clue to help someone unfamiliar with both species differentiate between them, but is not enough to make an absolute identification.
The same can be said for almost any feature, including the 2-scales between the eyes method. As an example, this Mojave Rattlesnake has 3 of these scales. In a quick post to our snake identification page on Facebook, this lead many people to incorrectly identify this snake as a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, when the overall appearance is clearly that of a Mojave Rattlesnake.
One of the biggest questions we get each November, when homeowners are surprised that snakes keep showing up in their social media feed: When do snakes go to sleep?
For snakes, that answer can be complicated. Snakes don’t really hibernate in the winter in the sense most of us are familiar with. Instead, they go into a state called brumation. During brumation, snakes live in their dens, but they’ll come out to bask in the sun on pleasant winter days.
Rattlesnakes in the Phoenix and Tucson areas can generally be found at the dens from October through March. When people see them basking outside of their dens, it sends waves of panic through news outlets, who report that snakes are coming out earlier that year. They say the same thing every year, even though snakes emerge right on time.
Their move towards dens (ingress) and out of dens (egress) is prompted by average temperatures, and other factors. If there are a few warm days in January, rattlesnakes might come out to bask and be spotted by people, but they are not starting their spring activity yet. They know not to leave their dens completely before temperatures have stabilized.
What makes a rattlesnake den?
Rattlesnakes choose very specific dens with steady temperatures during the coldest months. In the wild, these include large rock piles and caves with deep access. They know what’s best, even choosing the direction that the entrance faces.
On certain days, you’ll find rattlesnakes outside of their dens, basking in a mixture of shade and sunlight that brings their bodies to a comfortable temperature. They might be under a bush, between rocks or in the corners of a patio. This can be very surprising for homeowners.
Rain, too, can get snakes moving even on the coolest of days. In our area, rain is rare, and a drink is always welcome. A cloudy, drizzly day in the mid 60’s in January is an excellent day to see rattlesnakes on the surface.
If you see one snake between November and March, there may be a higher possibility that more might be denning in the same area. Rattlesnakes can den communally without many territorial problems. If you see a snake in the area during the winter months, it’s important to be very careful and watch for other snakes. In our warm climate, those dens are usually small, with just a few individuals. You’ve probably seen photos online of holes with hundreds of rattlesnakes pouring out of holes in the ground, but that’s not how it looks in Arizona.
Rattlesnakes may return to the same den year after year. This can be interrupted when construction or landscaping changes the area, destroying the den that the snake is trying to find. In that case, the snake will wander to the next best area. Homeowners frequently see rattlesnakes on their properties after construction begins.
What to do in the winter to keep your home rattlesnake free.
If you live in a desert area, it’s still important to watch for snakes in the winter.
Look where you’re walking.
Make sure to check your yard before letting young children play outside.
If you’re having landscaping changed, or if construction begins in your area, keep a watchful eye out for wandering snakes.
If you see a snake, call us at ——-. One of our removal experts can relocate the snake and check your property. Something you may also want to consider is having a Rattlesnake Fence professionally installed in your yard. No matter what, when the snakes “wake up” in early March, you’ll want to be ready for it.
For as common as they are, and as often as people see them, the Longnosed Snake (Rhinocheilus lecontei) is almost unknown to most of us.
Why is this? It seems to be due to a superficial similarity to a very well-known snake, the California Kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae). A mild-mannered, white-and-black banded snake that appears from time to time in backyards throughout Arizona, Kingsnakes are famous for their preference of rattlesnakes as a food source. They look quite a bit like the lesser-known Longnosed Snakes, but have a few key differences.
First, it should be said that Longnosed Snakes are completely harmless. They’re eaters of lizards, reptile eggs, and small rodents. I’ve never had one attempt to bite me over hundreds individuals handled. They do have a tendency to poop on the hands of the holder, however, and even bleed from their cloaca as a further action to say “hey, don’t eat me, I’m gross.” It must work, because I’ve never eaten a Longnosed Snake!
Longnosed Snakes live on the ground, and are mostly nocturnal, though they can be seen moving at any time of day in certain conditions. I most often encounter them as they move from hole to hole in the desert soil, poking their namesake nose in to see if there’s anything good to eat inside. They can get large, up to about 3′ in length, though most adults are a little more than 2′ long. They’re one of the few snakes that has become well-adapted to highly developed areas and can be found far from natural desert areas. Specifically, the Paradise Valley area, with its lush and green backyards that also tend to be huge, are home to a large number of Longnosed Snakes.
How to tell the difference between a Longnosed Snake and a Kingsnake
While some Longnosed Snakes are just black and white, most have some red, pink, or orange coloration as well. The pattern is most often more of a loose, jumbled or “pixelated” appearance, some having full red bands along with the black and white. Others just have a bit of a pinkish wash over the back, but it’s quite visible. Kingsnakes never have this coloration, so even a little pink or orange is enough to tell one from the other.
As the name implies, Longnoses Snakes have, wait for it … a long nose. It’s longer and more pointed than the round snout of a Kingsnake. It can be difficult to tell without seeing a lot of both without a direct comparison, but it’s clear when they are side-by-side.
Longnosed Snakes also often have grey or white smudges within each black band. Kingsnakes, while their pattern is very often far from perfectly-formed, don’t mix it up like this.
How to quickly differentiate a Longnosed Snake from a Kingsnake:
Longnosed Snakes have red, pink, or orange coloration. Kingsnakes do not.
Some Longnosed Snakes have red or orange eyes. Kingsnakes’ eyes are black or black and white.
Longnosed Snakes have a longer, pointed nose than Kingsnakes.
Longnosed Snakes may have white or grey smudges within the black bands, while Kingsnakes bands are completely black.
Why does it matter to know the difference?
I’ve always found this mentality odd, but it’s a question that’s posed enough (usually angrily, for some reason) that it should be addressed. If you are one of the many people who come to anger over facts that you don’t personally value, you are correct: knowing the difference between a Longnosed Snake and a Kingsnake is not likely something you’ll ever need to know. However, if you’re scared of snakes (most likely the reason for the above-mentioned attitude), knowing more about them is how you fix that.
Both Longnosed Snakes and Kingsnakes are completely harmless and not an issue at all to find in your yard or home, but for the snake-phobic, knowing what you’re looking at at 2 a.m. in your kitchen may be the difference between going back to sleep or not.
Longnosed Snakes tend to be found within homes more often than Kingsnakes. It could be because they seem to be more commonly encountered in general. It could also be because they tend to lay their eggs in areas around homes where they get inside more often. Flowerbeds, lantana bushes, and eroded material between pavement and the foundation are common spots for this to occur.
When baby Longnosed Snakes hatch, generally in the first few weeks of August, they seem to appear everywhere. Any social media or community group will have daily photos of baby Longnosed Snakes, asking “what is this?”, and a stream of incorrect identifications of a Kingsnake. While Kingsnakes do get into homes from time to time as well, they are not nearly as adept at doing so as the smaller, less-famous Longnosed Snake.
Aren’t sure? Send us a photo!
Many people are surprised to learn that Longnosed Snakes exist at all, let alone are the true identity of decades of “Kingsnake” encounters. If you have a snake photo that you’re not quite sure of, email it to us and we’ll tell you what it is.
Along with many hundreds of rattlesnakes each year, harmless and beneficial reptile species are often captured and moved a short distance at the request of Arizona homeowners. Gophersnakes, Kingsnakes, Groundsnakes, Coachwhips – even lizards such as Chuckwallas – are gently stuffed into a bucket and escorted elsewhere.
This leads to an obvious and common question that we are asked when this is discussed. Why would anyone want to move a harmless species of snake from their yard? And, why would an ethical wildlife services business do so when asked? These are very good questions, and rather than mention it in our social media comments, I’ll address the topic here so it can be answered in detail.
Before diving in, it’s important to understand the goals of snake-relocation and prevention as a practice. There are many ethical considerations that sometimes conflict with one another, and having clear criteria laid out can help form best-practice procedures. There are many masters to serve, and balance between them is not cut and dry. Some are of equal importance, where any action must take multiple priorities into consideration.
Primary considerations of equal weight for any action:
Benefit to the snake. Is the action impact survivable and justified?
Benefit to the homeowner. Are residents and pets made safer by action?
Benefit to community. Is the public perception of wildlife positively affected by action?
Additional considerations that help shape decision-making, but are always secondary to the primary goals:
Benefit to education/research. Is there information or a teachable opportunity gained by action?
Benefit to ___insert relocation org here___. Does action help advance the operation and ability to positively affect primary goals?
Ultimately, capturing and relocating snakes must progress one goal above all else: peacefully mitigate immediate wildlife conflict while providing long-term, sustainable alternatives. Snake relocation is the quick fix, snake fencing, education, research, and ongoing outreach are the long game; the latter category should perpetually attempt to put the former out of business.
Why would a homeowner want to get rid of a beneficial snake, like a Kingsnake or Gophersnake?
Desert-savvy homeowners know that there is no better friend to have in the backyard than these large, harmless snakes. They are amazing, free pest control, in the very least. Some, like Kingsnakes and Coachwhips, even eat rattlesnakes (not Gophersnakes, contrary to popular belief, but that’s a subject for a different article). They don’t hurt anyone, including kids and dogs, as they quietly patrol the neighborhood looking to take out rodents wherever they find them.
The only downside? Simply, some people just do not like snakes. That dislike is most often synonymous with fear. Regardless of the type, aside from any knowledge, a deep cultural-phobia persists for many (I covered much of this in an earlier article about pre-summer mental preparation for the snake-phobic along with some resources if you’re firmly in the “hate snakes” crowd.)
Fear of snakes runs deep – at an individual basis and as part of our culture – and it is not easily fixed. From the outside (as occasional criticism from armchair conservationists seems to indicate) it may seem like all that’s needed to convince someone that the Gophersnake in the backyard is nothing to worry about are some quick facts. The reality is much more complicated.
We do our best to educate and provide as many alternatives as possible. We make sure that people know that the snake in their yard is harmless and will leave on its own. We also have the experience to know when that knowledge alone isn’t enough. In these instances, the situation is best handled by action. The snake can be safely escorted from the property and is not killed by terrified homeowners, who likewise benefit from the educational experience.
Why do you relocate harmless snakes instead of just educating the homeowners?
Based on the goals detailed in this article, sometimes offering knowledge alone will not create the desired outcome. It is important to understand the motivation of the caller, and be able to approach the situation regardless of the most ideal scenario.
In a perfect world, someone calling a snake removal group, who learns that the Gophersnake they’re looking at is harmless and will leave on its own, will thank the hotline operator and ignore the snake. This does happen quite often, but not always.
Fear of snakes is often not a purely logical process. While lack of knowledge and experience is a large component of fear, why and how it affects a person is not so simple that it can be eliminated by throwing interesting facts at it.
Apathy is another foe of education-only conflict mitigation tactics. Many people simply do not care or want to think about the snake in their yard – they just want it gone. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, ignorant, etc. … most people just don’t think all that much about snakes. That’s an odd expectation to have as a prerequisite prior to helping them. New information will not be valued by a person who doesn’t value non-essential knowledge, and that’s ok.
A person with a deep fear of snakes is not likely to be positively affected by learning that the Kingsnake on the patio is harmless and eats rattlesnakes. “I know, but I have kids.”
The guy that just moved into a home on a golf course and doesn’t know who David Attenborough is doesn’t care how cool the Nightsnake in his kitchen is. “It eats scorpions? Cool story bro. I’m killing it.”
We have learned the hard way what happens when idealism supercedes reasonable action. – dead snakes. We get emails and texts every day of decapitated and hacked-up snakes, many of which were well known to be entirely harmless.
Tasked with resolving the conflict between a snake and a person, it is not useful or reasonable to abandon both when the scenario is not convenient.
Conservation outreach is not a job best performed by robots.
For people who enjoy snakes, it can be difficult for us to empathize and act appropriately in these situations. Those who choose to work with the public need to not forget that “the public” is made of people. They should remember that, outside of nature centers and Facebook groups where people intentionally seek and value information, is everyone else.
Do you have anxiety when you fly? Here are reports and data that show how amazingly safe flying is, reading the entirety of which will not make a dent in how a nervous flyer feels on the runway. If this situation doesn’t apply to you, replace flying with whichever fear you have. Does anything change? Would it still change if you perhaps thought differently or had a different personality?
If you’re the type that creates or shares memes and information online to educate people about snakes (or anything, really), consider who you are talking to and why they should care before you do. If you routinely say “herp” or find yourself annoyed when someone mixes up venomous and poisonous, this article is for you. Don’t forget that educating people involves, primarily: people.
Sidenote: the elephant in the room.
Yes, we make money from it. We do try our best to provide as many free services as possible to teach people what these harmless snakes are and that they can just be ignored, but if the situation requires one of our team to spend time on-site, there’s a fee involved to cover our time. That can be seen as an issue for some, but it allows us as an organization to exist and be staffed by experienced professionals with more than a passing interest. That potential for ethical conflict is understood and great care is taken to make sure that whenever possible, these situations can be resolved by information alone. There’s always going to be the “all business is evil; all profit is corrupt” sect of young conservationists who dislike what we do, and that is ok.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the most commonly-seen snakes in semi-urban areas in Arizona is also one of the most confusing. It’s brown, it’s big, it’s bad (if you ask its opinion, that is) and it’s … a Bullsnake? Gophersnake? Are those the same thing? Not really. If you live in Arizona telling the difference between a Gophersnake and a Bullsnake is easy:
Bullsnakes do not live in Arizona. All of the snakes that seem to be interchangeably called either Gophersnake or Bullsnake are all Gophersnakes. In Maricopa, Pinal, and Pima counties (where most of us live), they are all Sonoran Gophersnakes.
Bullsnakes and Gophersnakes are both real snakes, subspecies of the Gophersnake species Pituophis catenifer. In Arizona, we have two subspecies of Pituophis catenifer: the Sonoran Gophersnake, Pituophis catenifer affinis, and the Great Basin Gophersnake, Pituophis catenifer deserticola. What you do not see in this list of Arizona subspecies, however, is Pituophis catenifer sayi … the Bullsnake. And even more confusing, since sayi is a subspecies of the larger Gophersnake species, that means that while some Gophersnakes are also Bullsnakes, all Bullsnakes are also Gophersnakes. Whew.
The real Bullsnakes live throughout the central U.S., up into Canada, and down into Mexico. In the Southwest, their range ends to the West as it intergrades with Sonoran Gophersnakes in West Texas and eastern New Mexico. A great map of this distribution can be found here.
Is this that important? For most people, not really. While calling a Sonoran Gophersnake a Bullsnake is incorrect, the intent and general description of the snake and what it does are the same. If someone says they see a Bullsnake on their patio, it’s definitely not a Bullsnake, but I do know exactly what they are talking about. In this way the common name still does its job in providing a general description of what it is, and also highlights the difference in utility between use of common names and the more precise latin nomenclature.