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Social buffering: Rattlesnakes need company to relieve stress

The mystifying world of rattlesnake behavior has come under the spotlight with a breakthrough finding by scientists at Loma Linda University. The study, marking a first in the field, demonstrates that the stress response in rattlesnakes can be subdued when in the company of another snake.

This surprising behavior, known as social buffering, is comparable to how humans find solace in each other during moments of heightened tension. 

The discovery of this activity among solitary creatures hints at a depth of social behavior that has been previously unexplored in the world of reptiles.

Social buffering 

Social buffering is a phenomenon wherein the presence of a companion leads to a decrease in an individual’s stress levels. Even though this behavior has been studied extensively in highly sociable animals such as mammals and birds, its manifestation in rattlesnakes is a newfound revelation. 

The researchers found that disturbances led to a significant reduction in the change in heart rates of rattlesnakes when another snake was in the vicinity.

Stress triggers the production of hormones in animals, causing shifts in their nervous system, immune response, and behavior. Some animals have the capability to modulate this stress response when in the company of another member of their species, effectively buffering the stress. 

Overcoming stress together 

The team from Loma Linda University was intrigued by the lack of studies on social buffering in reptiles and solitary animals. The experts set out to investigate the potential for such behavior among rattlesnakes in Southern California.

Chelsea Martin is a PhD student at Loma Linda University and the lead author of the study, which was published in Frontiers in Ethology.

“We showed that when two snakes were together and experienced a stressful situation, they could buffer each other’s stress response, much like what happens to humans when they endure a stressful event together. This dampening of the stress response has not been reported previously in any reptile species,” said Martin. 

How the study was conducted 

The researchers used 25 wild-caught southern Pacific rattlesnakes and created three scenarios for the experiment: when the snakes were alone, when a rope was present as an inanimate control object, and when a same-sex companion was nearby. 

To gauge the snakes’ stress levels and potential social buffering, the researchers used electrodes affixed near their hearts and connected to a heart rate monitor. The experimental setup was designed as a dark and enclosed space resembling a bucket.

Following a 20-minute period of adjustment, the snakes were intentionally disturbed. The team recorded the increase in heart rate, the time it took for the heart rate to return to normal, and the duration of rattling. 

Results of the study

The researchers were able to determine that social buffering likely occurs in nature and can persist in captivity. The study found no discrepancies in the phenomenon among snakes that overwintered individually and those that overwintered communally, nor any differences between male and female snakes.

The team also considered the differences between montane rattlesnakes, which tend to hibernate communally, and their lowland counterparts who usually overwinter alone. 

Females were noted to gather during pregnancy and stay with their newborns. These factors were taken into account and the results revealed an equal propensity for stress buffering among different populations and sexes.

“Our results provide insights into social behavior patterns of snakes and might also improve rattlesnakes’ image. In the public eye, they are often maligned. These findings could help to change that,” said Martin. 

Study limitations

Despite these insights, the researchers acknowledge certain limitations. The confined space in which the snake pairs were kept did not allow for investigation of stress buffering response when snakes were close but not in physical contact. 

The team hopes to address this in their future studies, and also plans to look at how familiarity between two snakes impacts their social buffering response.

Still yet, the research has unlocked new possibilities for understanding the complexities of snake behavior. 

“Our understanding of the social dynamics in reptiles has been enriched by what we observed,” said Martin. “This study challenges negative perceptions of rattlesnakes, potentially leading to a more balanced and informed perspective on these remarkable creatures.”

More about rattlesnakes 

Rattlesnakes are a group of venomous snakes that are native to the Americas. They are a part of the subfamily Crotalinae, also known as pit vipers. The name “rattlesnake” comes from the distinctive rattle at the end of their tails, which they use as a warning signal when they feel threatened.

There are several species of rattlesnakes, and they vary in size, color, and habitat. Some of the more well-known species include the Eastern Diamondback, Western Diamondback, Timber Rattlesnake, and Mojave Rattlesnake.

Rattlesnakes can be found in a wide range of habitats, including deserts, forests, grasslands, and swamps. They are ambush predators, meaning they typically lie in wait for their prey to come close, rather than actively hunting. They primarily feed on small mammals, but their diet can also include birds and reptiles.

When a rattlesnake bites, it injects venom into its victim. The venom contains a mix of toxins that can cause symptoms like pain, swelling, and sometimes more severe effects like tissue damage or even systemic effects on the circulatory system. It’s important to seek immediate medical attention if you are bitten by a rattlesnake.

Rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous, meaning they give birth to live young rather than laying eggs.

Despite their fearsome reputation, rattlesnakes prefer to avoid confrontation with humans when possible. They only usually bite when cornered or threatened. Many states have laws protecting rattlesnakes due to their role in controlling rodent populations.


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