A Guest in Quiet

An interview with Melissa Amarello on the social psychology of Rattlesnakes

Posted Jan 29, 2016

Jeff Smith, used with permission
Melissa with Henry, western diamondback rattlesnake.
Source: Jeff Smith, used with permission

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
. . .
He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,

And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,

I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough.
- D.H. Lawrence

Since neurosciences’ recognition of a trans-species, species common model of brain, mind, and behavior, reptiles are no longer dismissed as being “lower” or “lesser” than mammals. Scientifically, reptiles occupy a position of neuropsychological parity with humans and other mammals. As Duke University professor of neurobiology and senior investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Erich Jarvis states,“A reptile brain is similar to a bird brain and both are similar to mammalian brains which implies that reptiles may have parallel capacities to think, feel, experience consciousness, and related abilities to mentally function.”[2]

However, in this interview with conservation biologist Melissa Amarello, co-founder with Jeff Smith of Advocates for Snake Preservation (ASP), Arizona, US, everyday life for snakes does not reflect scientific understanding. Melissa shares insights gained from her research on rattlesnake social psychology and describes the reality of what life is like for rattlesnakes and relatives.

M. Amarello, used with permission
Henry, western diamondback rattlesnake.
Source: M. Amarello, used with permission

Melissa, tell us about your background and experience that led you to rattlesnakes and creating a non-profit that accomplishes its vision of “a world where snakes are respected and appreciated instead of feared and hated” through science, education, and advocacy.

MA: I was drawn to snakes as a kid for many of the same reasons that others are repulsed by them. They’re different. They’re disliked, feared, and most of what people know about snakes is based on myths and misconceptions. I pursued a career in conservation biology because that seemed like the obvious choice to help snakes. After working for more than a decade in traditional conservation biology of snakes I saw firsthand how negative attitudes often impeded efforts to address other threats (habitat degradation, disease, etc.). The need for positive messaging about snakes was apparent, so my partner and I incorporated education and outreach into our work, formalized in 2014 with the founding of Advocates for Snake Preservation (ASP). Our hope is that by illuminating the secret lives of snakes, people will come to admire and appreciate them and their rightful place in nature.

Neurosciences shows that reptile brains are as complex as human brains, that is their brain structures and processes that govern Rattlesnake thinking, feeling, and the experience of consciousness are comparable to our own. Does this surprise you?

MA: No, not after the years I have spent with them. Of course, like most wildlife biologists, I was taught the opposite, that snakes have simple, “reptilian” brains. But when you spend time really looking and being open to who they might be you find out how smart snakes really are. We tend to evaluate nonhuman animals relative to humans mental states and behavior. This makes no sense whatsoever. Rattlesnakes can’t operate a smart phone or carry on a verbal conversation, but then why would or should they? They don’t need to do those things to make their living. They are amazing at what they do know how to do. In order to eat, a rattlesnake has to figure out where potential food can be had. This takes a keen intelligence.  She or he has to find an active rodent or other prey trail and then identify an appropriate spot on the trail that provides enough cover and access to strike. The trail can’t be that of a fox or other predator who eats snakes. A trail used by a rat may also be used by a fox. Then, once the stage is set, the snake needs to exercise patience and sensitive vigilance while waiting for their prey to come along.

When that happens, the rattlesnake has to deliver an accurate strike and inject venom. That’s not enough- there’s more. After the strike, the snake lets go of the injected prey and waits until the venom takes effect. He has to find the rodent trail and be able to discern that the rodent’s trail is from the same rodent that he has struck. It’s possible that another snake has hunted so it can be confusing. A snake has to be able to tell these nuanced differences - and they can. Lab experiments show that a snake can tell who has been bitten by whom. All of this for just one meal. So, you see, rattlesnakes have to be extremely intelligent and accurate decision makers. When you think about all that they are able to do, it puts our own human “talents” to shame. Maybe tribal humans could do this, but scientists and the everyday modern human can’t come close to rattlesnake intelligence. There is still so much mystery as to how rattlesnakes are able to do what they do. For instance, how do they navigate in the large scale landscape successfully? How does he know where a female will be in the first week of August? How did she find that particular spot to meet a male? They are complex beings.

A key theme to your research is rattlesnake sociality, and from a psychologist’s point of view, one might say social psychology. The idea of a social snake (the name of your blog) usually comes as a surprise for most people including wildlife biologists. Are Rattlesnakes social?

Using remote, time lapse cameras to record rattlesnake movements and interactions, we discovered that up to a hundred or so snakes congregate in a den and do so for reasons other than mating or just because there is no other place to stay warm. There are all sorts of family dynamics and preferential associations or “friendships.” Individuals clearly choose to be with one snake over another. There are even baby sitters or helpers who will watch over another rattlesnake’s young when the mother is not with them.

Further, not all rattlesnakes have the same social system. Western Diamondback (Crotalus atrox) dens are primarily occupied by adults whereas Arizona Black dens have all ages of snakes. Western Diamondback dens seem to function primarily to facilitate mating in spring; you rarely see a group of adult females, males, and juveniles hanging out like Arizona Black rattlesnakes do – no snuggle-bunny behavior. Instead, you tend to see males fighting with each other or courting females. So in a broad sense, we are learning that there are different types of rattlesnake societies. What they do, and with whom they do it with, is not arbitrary or just determined by climate and terrain but influenced by sociality. And how they socialize gives us insights into how they think- their psychology.

M. Amarello, used with permission
An injured and terrified western diamondback rattlesnake at a roundup.
Source: M. Amarello, used with permission

You and others also talk about reptile emotions. Again, neuroscience predicts that snakes have the capacity to experience the entire range of feelings and emotions that we do given the similarities in brain structures. Do you see this in the field?

MA: Yes, we do. There is absolutely no reason why they don’t experience the range of emotions that we do. Snakes, and reptiles in general, suffer from a long history of human prejudice. First of all, they have been classified as unfeeling killing machines driven by a simple limbic reptilian brain. Second, unlike mammals, snakes don’t have (or we cannot read) their facial expressions. This makes people think that snakes don’t have feelings. Third, when snake emotions are discussed, it is usually limited to a description of fear or aggression. For example, most people, including many biologists, read a snake’s tail rattling as aggression. This is untrue. It is a warning and communiqué of fear. Rattlesnakes rattle when they feel in danger and it is their way of saying something that might be translated as, ”Hey watch out! I am here so don’t step on me.” They rattle when there is no viable option to safely slither away or hide under a rock, unseen.

If a rattlesnake was truly being aggressive, she or he would not make a sound but stay quietly hidden, then attack, like they do when they are stalking prey. In addition, it is not sufficient to label a behavior as “aggressive.” A snake who is responding defensively is worlds away psychologically from one who is attacking. This kind of bias is like wearing glasses that only let you see red or green (aggression or fear) instead of glasses that let in all the colors of the rainbow—all emotions: joy, curiosity, love, sadness as well as fear and defensiveness. When you wear “full spectrum glasses,” that is, you are open and curious to seeing a rattlesnake just like you might another human, then you can start to see these differences in emotions and personalities.

M. Amarello, used with permission
An Arizona black rattlesnake family.
Source: M. Amarello, used with permission

It is crucial to pay attention to individual differences. When you are interested in each individual then you really discover how unique each one is. Trail cameras and other remote technologies have helped peel away the misconceptions and myths. Now cryptic and hard to observe species who were conventionally considered asocial or unemotional are turning out to have much more complex ways of interacting and mental states. Before, it was only possible to observe rattlesnakes in an artificial setting like a lab or with a human observer present and visible to the snake. In these situations, observations are by definition biased because the snakes are in the presence of a potential predator (human) or confined in a foreign environment that is very threatening.

Rattlesnakes likely spend less than 10% of their time rattling but we think that they do it all the time because when we see them, they feel threatened by us and react accordingly. From the snake’s perspective, we are huge dangerous beings who are often bent on killing them. By the time they get to the lab, they have had to endure capture, transport, then captivity – all which are very stressful. As Jane Goodall demonstrated, even observations in the field require a long time before wildlife feels comfortable enough to act “naturally” around researchers. Combined with observational bias, perceptual prejudice has led to significant misinterpretations of snake (and other wildlife) behavior.

Snakes, and in particular venomous ones such as Rattlesnakes, usually evoke fear and loathing among humans, but your experience shows otherwise. (Most snakes are technically venomous, not poisonous - poison is ingested, venom is injected.)
Can you talk about some of the snakes you have met and known, their personalities and how they exhibit differences in “emotional make up”?

MA: Again, for the most part, the idea of a reptile having a personality is scoffed at or dismissed as scientifically invalid. In part, I think that many scientists resist that the “person” in personality could ever be associated with a snake! But, the idea of snake personality is perfectly reasonable and exactly what the science and field experience predict. Differences in personality and psychology show up when you see how different snakes respond differently in a given situation. Behavioral differences translate to personality differences and personality differences translate to different emotional profiles which are different psychologies. For example, we have seen an entire range of differences in the way individual rattlesnakes react to potential threats, how comfortable or not they feel around humans, and so on. Talking about rattlesnake personalities is not much different than how people talk about differences in dog and cat personalities.

M. Amarello, used with permission
Henry and Four, western diamondback rattlesnakes in combat.
Source: M. Amarello, used with permission

I’ll illustrate with two snakes whom we observed for several years while living on a nature preserve and who had wildly contrasting personalities. There were a lot of rattlesnakes in the area and a fair number who spent most of the year around our house. Spooky was a western diamondback rattlesnake and probably male. We never touched or caught him, but he was always on edge. Unlike the other snakes, we never saw him first – you knew exactly where he was because he would start rattling well before we could spot him. You did not have to be that close nor was it that he was out moving around in the open – both instances when a snake feels most vulnerable. He was always in a state of nervousness, worry, and terror – which is why we called him Spooky.

Then there was Henry, another male Western Diamondback, whose personality was completely different. Even though Henry had plenty of reasons to dislike and be fearful of us, he was extraordinarily laid back and calm. We had captured him, performed surgery to implant a radio-telemetry tag, held him in captivity during his recovery, and then after his release, followed him around everywhere he went. All of this could be extremely stressful and frightening. But, Henry did not seem to mind or hold a grudge. He was a sweetheart. You could walk right next to him, inches away, and he would just lie there. He did not try to defend himself or show the extreme fear and uneasiness like Spooky always did. Henry’s breathing rate did not increase, he did not even shuffle around when coiled like rattlesnakes do just before they take off for shelter. Henry was like this in all sorts of situations.

One time, I was watched him fight with another male and a couple of times, we made eye contact, we were that close. Another time he was trailing a female, I followed him and I was walking just a few feet behind. But Henry paid me no mind on either occasion. He just went on his business. He could have cared less. Other people who had lived there had similar stories about Henry.

You mention that Henry was fighting with a male. What does that look like?

MA: Rattlesnakes are not territorial: they share dens and nest sites, their home ranges overlap, and outside the breeding season, encounters between even male Rattlesnakes don’t usually end in a fight. But males do engage in non-violent combat for females. When two males fight, it is kind of like thumb-wrestling; the two stand up erect and turn and twist around each other. It is sometimes called the “combat dance” because it is the most beautiful and non-violent fight where no one gets hurts. This is also why so many people mistake it as courtship. It is hard for most people to believe that this so-called ruthless dangerous killer is actually gentle. They don’t hurt each other. This idea is so far out of most people’s understanding of rattlesnakes. 

What are the biggest challenges for rattlesnakes?

MA: Like most other wildlife, rattlesnakes are under siege: habitat loss from human development, vehicular mortality (i.e., crossing roads), hunting and so on. People don’t like rattlesnakes and so go out of their way to kill them. The danger of rattlesnakes is way overblown. You are much more likely to be injured by a car, horse, or even a dog than a rattlesnake. In the US, if a person is bitten, which is rare if they aren’t handling or trying to kill the snake, it is easily treated in a hospital.

J. McArthur, used with permission
Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup.
Source: J. McArthur, used with permission

Rattlesnake “round-ups” are still popular events for families and communities. Describe what they are and the conservation and psychological impacts on Rattlesnakes.

MA: Rattlesnake round-ups are public festivals located in Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Texas that started around the 1950s. Snake hunters go out before the festival event and collect as many rattlesnakes as they can. There is an emphasis on collecting as many as possible and often there is a prize or some recognition for the person who collects the most. It is telling that they assess the winning hunter by the total weight of snakes brought in, not number. The most famous is held in March in Sweetwater, Texas; it started in 1958. The way the snakes are collected is brutal. Most (eighty percent according to roundup proponents) are collected by pouring gasoline in their over-wintering site. Because rattlesnakes often share those sites with many other wildlife species, this practice can harm many animals and pollute the groundwater, soil, and plants. Then the snakes are kept for days, weeks, or months until the roundup festival, often without food, water, or even light. Once they arrive at the roundup, they are used for all sorts of events—some advertised as pure “family fun” and others touted as science and education.

J. McArthur, used with permission
Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup.
Source: J. McArthur, used with permission

For example, in one area the snakes are taken out and measured. The organizers claim that this information helps biologists monitor rattlesnake populations. But they do not record where they came from and without that information you cannot hope to monitor populations. There is another area where they demonstrate how to extract venom. While the claim is that the venom can be used for research or developing anti-venom, the collection procedure and equipment are not sterile or clean, rendering it useless for reputable researchers. The venom is just squirted into a cup with other snakes’ venom.

Most roundups include a beauty pageant; at Sweetwater it’s called “Miss Snake Charmer.” Young women participate in a pre-festival pageant where, like other beauty pageants, there is a talent show, an evening gown parade, and so on. But the candidates are also taken to a rattlesnake den where they have to kill and skin a rattlesnake for the local media. Whoever is crowned usually participates in the killing and skinning at the roundup too, pausing to pose for photo ops. The skinning pit is where rattlesnakes are stunned, beheaded, and skinned in public at the roundup. Many snakes didn’t looked stunned, were still moving while being skinned, and even coiling up around each other after they were skinned. Rattlesnake meat is sold on site and there are even snake meat eating contests. There is flea market where snakeskin boots, wallets, dolls, along with the usual flea market stuff are sold. I saw a turtle shell with raccoon hands and rattlesnake head.

J. McArthur, used with permission
Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup.
Source: J. McArthur, used with permission

Children are encouraged to participate in the skinning. I spoke with one girl who was no more than ten years old holding a still beating rattlesnake heart in her hand. After they skin the snake, children are encouraged to press their bloody hand prints on a wall. Some kids protest or refuse to participate and their parents cajole and make them. All this perpetuates the myths and cultivates a profoundly disrespectful attitude towards nature.

There is growing concern that these mass killing on top of the typical lethal response when a rattlesnake is observed in someone’s garden is having serious impacts on the species’ populations.

J. McArthur, used with permission
Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup.
Source: J. McArthur, used with permission

MA: Yes, for instance, along with Dr. Bruce Means, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition to protect Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus) under the Endangered Species Act. This species is in decline and yet is still targeted by two lethal rattlesnake roundups in Alabama and Georgia. More and more people are upset about the cruelty as well as the environmental fallout involved, the toxic pollution. However, convincing people about the need for rattlesnake protection is tough. Fear of snakes is so deeply engrained in cultural myth. It is hard to fight an emotion as strong as fear with facts.

What can people do to help snakes? For example, if they find one around their house should they translocate?

MA: On the surface, Rattlesnake translocation seems obviously better than killing, but it is debatable whether it is actually more cruel. Overall, the most sustainable solution, and perhaps the safest for people and "pets," is to learn how to live in peaceful co-existence with their snake neighbors. To learn more about the issues concerning snake translocation, people can visit our website where we post articles and other educational information.[3] In terms of how people can help snakes, our main message is to appreciate snakes for the wonderful beings they really are. We welcome people to read our blogs and sign-up for our newsletter which discusses new research findings, educational videos, and up and coming initiatives that can help protect snakes.

M. Amarello, used with permission
Adrian, pregnant Arizona black rattlesnake, 'babysitting' her nestmates' offspring.
Source: M. Amarello, used with permission

Literature Cited

[1] Lawrence, D.H. 1923. Snake.

[2] Erich Jarvis, in discussion with G. A. Bradshaw. May 2013

[3] Brian K. Sullivan, Erika M. Nowak, and Matthew A. Kwiatkowski, Problems with Mitigation Translocation of Herpetofauna, Conservation Biology 29, vol. 1 (2015), 15.