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 This article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of NatureScapes.net...


That Snake Thing: Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Combat
(Crotalus Atrox)
Text and images copyright Trey Neal, all rights reserved

The Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, like many snakes, is a misunderstood creature. I have been among those who have feared this snake most of my life. Growing up ranching, the rattler has always been an animal in disfavor - better dead than alive. But all of that changed for me in the early spring of 2004 when I, along with my wife and teen-aged daughter, witnessed a rarely seen and even less often recorded event.

The plan, while at the ranch in South Texas, was to take advantage of the reasonably good light to go find and shoot wildflowers. We loaded up all the camera gear we own, from super-wide to super telephoto, in hopes that we might find something besides just flowers - birds, deer, coyotes, or anything else that might pique our interest. We were off with partly cloudy mid-afternoon sun casting nice, warm light on everything.

Driving down the dirt road toward the back pasture took us past a few prospects but nothing worthy of stopping for as the breeze was up a bit and everything was moving. We came upon an area off the road that was more protected from the wind and targeted a few isolated flowers to shoot. I was teaching my wife, Sandra, how to use extension tubes and had set up to capture a macro shot of one of our subjects when she heard a noise in the underbrush behind us.

Since we both grew up ranching, the sound of a rattlesnake is all too familiar and frightening. Sandra commented that it sounded like a snake, but I wasnít so sure. Only moments later we heard it again, and this time I was fairly sure that what weíd heard was a snake, but it wasnít rattling; it was a rustling sound. My curiosity quickly got the best of me, and I abandoned my camera mounted on the tripod and pointed at the flower, and ventured over to investigate the noise. I wasnít even remotely prepared for what I saw as I stepped over a mound of dirt: two male Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes engaged in combat.

Crotalus atrox, the second largest rattlesnake in North America belongs to the family Viperidae and genus Crotalus. The Western Diamondback has the dubious distinction of both the highest number of serious bites as well as the highest mortality rate among venomous snakes in North America (Conant & Collins, 1991). This rattler gets its name from the distinctive pattern of brown diamond- shaped markings that are found along itís back. Crotalus is also referred to as the coon-tailed rattler due to the alternating black and white bands of color at the end of its tail. Crotalus is a pit viper, so named due to the presence of heat sensing pits in front of its eyes, which are used to detect warm-blooded prey. The pits also serve to control the amount of venom injected when the snake strikes its prey.

The other key sensing tool at the rattlerís disposal is the forked tongue that it uses for smell. The sensitive tip of its tongue takes back information to pits inside its mouth called Jacobsonís organs. These organs tell the snake how far to the right or left potential prey is lurking.

Now, I will have to admit that these facts werenít exactly running through my head when I saw these two snakes. Running was on my mind, however, running back to the Gator (a utility vehicle made by John Deere) to retrieve my 600mm lens and large tripod. I was clearly excited as I ran toward Sandra and Mattie, and I think they might have been concerned that Iíd been bitten.

I grabbed gear and told Sandra to bring her camera and start shooting because we had happened upon a strange snake thing, a couple of rattlers fighting! I literally dropped all the macro equipment I had set up, switched to the big gun and tried to position myself for maximum access and minimum risk. Unfortunately, the best location was squarely in the middle of a large cactus, which we proceeded to knock out of the way. I was virtually oblivious to the jabs of the thorns and spent a good deal of time later digging them out of everywhere. Once we were set, we fired the cameras as fast as our shutters would allow, me shooting the Nikon D1X and Sandra shooting the D2H. Eight frames per second will make a D1X shooter very jealous.

What Sandra and I spent the next 45 minutes or so shooting was the ritual combat of two adult male rattlesnakes. This combat takes place in the spring during the breeding season between two males of the species. The combat is termed as ritual behavior since there appears to be no effort on the part of either snake to inflict serious damage. No striking occurs either, as the snakes are immune to their own venom, although injuries could occur due to the forceful nature of the fight.

In the course of battle, the snakes will wrap their lower bodies around each other and rise up to push on each other. The goal is to establish superiority by forcing the opponent to the ground with the victor earning the right to breed the often nearby-waiting female. One of the behaviors observed frequently during this battle is the tendency for each snake to attempt to get its head above the other snakeís head, apparently another dominance action and what appears to be an advantage in leverage.

Many times the pair would rise up for what appeared to be at least a foot and a half off the ground, followed by a rapid movement of wrapping themselves around each other while attempting to push the other down to the ground. When one was successful in driving his opponent down, it was done with a flourish of motion, and the resulting thud was the sound we had heard that drew us to them initially.

During the course of this battle, the snakes ranged over about five square yards in relatively open area, but often near or on top of prickly pear bushes. One of the snakes was observed to have thorns sticking out of its head, the result of the aggressive slamming around while near the prickly pear.

One of the fascinating things about the action was even though we were only about 12 to 15 yards away from the combatants, they never seemed to notice us - at least there was no apparent reaction to our presence. We were close enough to the action that we could hear them breathe when they would retreat. There was one moment when I thought maybe they had determined that there were intruders into their private war. Were they considering whether to investigate the two big "eyes", our telephotos, that were pointing their way? Both of us were sure to keep checking to be certain our escape path was clear, and we were prepared to move away at a secondís notice.

It didnít take too long for both of us to realize that shooting at the maximum frame rate was quickly depleting our stash of CF cards. Mattie was wonderful help, shuttling back and forth from the vehicle for lenses, cards, and anything else we could think of that we needed. It was soon apparent that we would run out of storage before this battle came to an end. Once we exhausted our supply of cards, we decided to leave the snakes to their still ongoing fight and headed back to the house to download and burn CDs. We realized we had captured a rarely recorded event and had to be certain not to risk losing any of the 900 or so captures.

One of the lasting impressions I take from this experience is the realization that though I had been raised as a cattleman and horseman to truly dislike the rattlesnake, there was never a point during the whole time that I considered the prospect of killing these two snakes - the ingrained response that I would normally have had. As for Sandra - she had the unpleasant experience of being bitten by a rattler a number of years ago, and this experience left her with a few snaky dreams for a few days, but it was still well worth the unique opportunity to see and capture this event in the wild.

To see more of the reptiles featured in this article, go to the Rattlesnake Gallery.





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