We are interested in what wild snakes do. They are notoriously difficult to observe without disturbing them, which, in part is why they are so woefully misunderstood. We try to spend a lot of time in the field when snakes are active to carefully and quietly observe what they do. This observational approach is as old as natural history, but we have benefited from modern electronics that allow us to watch them in our absence (e.g., remote photography and videography). We share the best stories and videos in our presentations, online, and publish our findings in peer-reviewed journals.
Historically when groups of snakes shared a den, it was explained by a lack of suitable places to find refuge from the cold, because communal dens are the norm in areas with harsh winters. But in relatively mild climates of Arizona, some rattlesnakes also share dens, suggesting alternative functions for grouping together. By monitoring these dens remotely, we have discovered that Arizona black rattlesnakes are social creatures; some have friends, while others may never associate with anyone that shares their den.
We are now investigating relatedness within rattlesnake communities using DNA microsatellite analysis, to see whether, for example, friends are actually close relatives. More than a mere shelter from the cold, dens may serve as the social hub for some snake communities, where snakes learn from each other good places to bask, hunt, or give birth.
We have also used remote videography to monitor rattlesnake nest sites and have learned much about their family lives. Rattlesnakes take care of their kids, defend them from threats, and babysit their neighbor’s kids. We have also observed male rattlesnakes at nests attending young.
This article originally appeared on the ASP website. It has been reprinted with permission.