Dance of the Diamondbacks

"It is one of those heart stopping hold your breath encounters, and when it's over you are just like....Ahhhh! I can breathe."

Every now and then you witness something in the brush country that rivets your attention, and if you are fortunate enough to have a camera with you, then perhaps you are able to capture the moment. Patty Raney recently had a memorable encounter with a pair of diamondback rattlesnakes and thanks to her expertise with the camera she has the pictures to share with us.

Patty is from Harlingen and has been a wildlife photographer for ten years. She has entered the past three Valley Land Fund Wildlife Photo Contests and placed several winning images. Thru her involvement with the photo contests she met John and Audrey Martin, who helped found the Valley Land Fund, and has been guiding wildlife photographers on the Martin's Javelina Ranch in Hidalgo County.

She was finishing up with a couple of photographers when she chanced upon the rattlers. "I had two photographers out at the Javelina, and they were leaving for another property," Raney said. "When they left, I decided to go back to the photo blind and just make sure everything was set up for the next people to come in."

"I turned down the sendero and saw the two snakes above the grass and came to a screeching halt. I was about 50 feet away and didn't want to disturb them. So I bailed out, grabbed my camera and tripod and started taking pictures. I gradually worked closer and closer, and they were so absorbed with themselves they totally ignored me."

The two rattlers were males, and they were attempting to assert their dominance. Their serpentine bodies became entwined as each strived to rise above his rival. "They just kind of bumped each other and rubbed up against each other. There was no real aggression, and I thought they were mating. They would go down to the ground and then come up again."

Pat Burchfield, director of the Gladys Porter Zoo, has witnessed the display in the wild and among captive snakes. "It's a dominance type of behavior, and if you watch them for any period of time it would seem each is trying to obtain the upper position or dominant position," Burchfield explained.

"I have seen the behavior before in the zoo environment when we put snakes together deliberately to stir them up to get them to breed. I actually saw a pair of rattlers in the wild engaged in this dominance display down in Mexico years ago a little bit south of San Fernando."

Burchfield noted that herpetologists have documented the same type of behavior not just in rattlesnakes but in other species as well. Among other species of snakes that exhibit this behavior is the indigo, a nonvenomous resident of South Texas. Cottonmouths or water moccasins, while not native to the Rio Grande Valley, also engage in male dominance displays. "With most snakes, neither snake is injured, but the cottonmouths are a whole different story," Burchfield said. "Cottonmouths are snake eaters, and a rival may get eaten."

"It may have been what led to the snakes on the Caduceus," Burchfield surmised. "If you think about the medical symbol of the entwined snakes, it may have been what the ancients saw. That's just my supposition."

The sight of two big rattlers wrapped around one another as they twisted and strained for uppermost position certainly focused Patty's attention. She put 125 pictures on her card and watched in fascination for nearly 30 minutes.

"They finally just stopped and went their separate ways," she said. "I'm sure I didn't spook them. They never rattled, and they moved off at a slow pace. When something is threatening them you know how they can move."

"I actually thought it was like a courtship dance, but when we sent the pictures to the Gladys Porter Zoo the reptile curator emailed back saying, "No, these are two males vying for the attention of a female who is probably in the wings."

Upon receiving the news, Patty's reaction was something like, "Oh great, there I was down on the ground focusing all my attention on what I thought were a male and female in this beautiful courtship display and all the while I might have stumbled into the object of their affection."

Several years ago I came upon two diamondback rattlesnakes copulating in the middle of a sendero on the Encino division of the King Ranch. My friend and I exited the truck to inspect the tryst, which by the way is not nearly as dramatic as the male dominance display. The two snakes were simply entwined on the ground and apparently connected in the important anatomical way. There was very little movement, and it did not appear to be a particularly exciting encounter.

Rather than interrupt the amorous rattlers we began to back off, when we suddenly heard a yelp from camp. Tom looked at me and said, "Poncho is in trouble. I bet he has been hit." Tom knows his labs, and his prediction was unfortunately accurate. We quickly returned to camp and found Tom's happy go lucky Labrador retriever with two very prominent fang marks right between his eyes.

We rushed the dog to Dr. Steve Bentsen, who runs the Nolana Animal Hospital in McAllen, and thanks to Steve's expertise the lab pulled through. Poncho's head was about twice its normal size by the time we arrived at the vets, but he recovered completely. I suspect he had quite a headache for a while though.

I have spent my life in the brush country and seen a great many diamondback rattlesnakes, but I have never seen males performing their impressive dominance dance. I have friends who have witnessed the ritual, some who quickly dispatched the venomous vipers and others who marveled at the striking beauty of two lethal snakes entwined in their serpentine ballet.

Patty Raney realized she was seeing something very special, something she might never witness again. "It is just one of those awesome things. I cant' believe I was fortunate enough to see them."

Thanks for sharing your photos Patty, and if there is a next time, you will know that while the dance of the diamondbacks is mesmerizing, you just might want to watch your step for the object of their desire.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore