Snake Thing: Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Combat
Text and images copyright Trey Neal, all rights reserved
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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