Gophersnakes Play Rough

Not all snake combat is as gentle as that of the Panamint Rattlesnakes described so beautifully by Ceal in The Art of Gentle Combat. In May 2011, we stumbled upon a Gophersnake love triangle and were shocked by their rough and ruthless tactics.

Popeye rests his head on Olive Oyl (Gophersnakes: tan snakes with reddish-brown to dark brown blotches) while courting her. They are sitting on red sand.
Popeye courting Olive Oyl (Gophersnakes), in a brief moment of tenderness amidst all the fighting and chasing.

We noticed a long, dark form on the dirt road from afar. We approached to find a Gophersnake (Bluto), whose chocolate-colored blotches contrasted against a pale yellow background. Bluto headed directly to a juniper at the road’s edge. By the time we drew our cameras, he had vanished into a burrow. Our lamentations of his disappearance were short-lived, because in an adjacent sagebrush we discovered not one, but TWO more Gophersnakes. Given the season and the apparent amorous nature of their entanglement, we surmised they were a male and female pair (Popeye and Olive Oyl).

The couple soon tired of our presence and retreated into a burrow on the opposite side of the sagebrush. Rather than try our patience against reptiles, we explored the area and returned an hour later. We spotted Olive Oyl meandering through the roadside vegetation, then she turned and moved slowly from the road. Minutes later, Popeye came cruising through the same grass she’d just passed. He made several wide loops, even coming within a couple yards of her before turning away. When he finally located her, he grasped her with his mouth behind her head. Perhaps because of our looming presence, Olive Oyl slowly wormed to the cover afforded by a small shrub.

Bluto (Gophersnake: tan snakes with reddish-brown to dark brown blotches) crawling over some sticks and across the sand while tongue-flicking in search of Olive Oyl.
Bluto on the hunt.

Bluto entered the stage from the same direction as the other two on vaguely the same path. He looped and circled, at times retracing his own path in reverse. He approached Popeye and Olive Oyl within a couple yards several times before his search was finally over.

Bluto immediately began biting Popeye, which eventually induced Popeye to release his grasp of Olive Oyl. Without delay she fled. Although Popeye flinched and squirmed with apparent discomfort from Bluto’s biting, he did not retaliate in kind. Instead, he escaped the assault by disappearing into a nearby burrow. Bluto, not noticing that Popeye had escaped, actually bit himself a couple times by mistake. Finally realizing that his competitor was sidelined, Bluto resumed his search for Olive Oyl.

Bluto was hurried; he flicked his tongue almost continuously, halting almost imperceptibly several times a second to deliver particles into his mouth. Undoubtedly, Bluto was following traces of Olive Oyl, but her trail was not clear. He traveled in wide loops, backtracked, and even ascended into a tree.

Popeye could wait no longer. He emerged from the burrow, located Olive Oyl’s scent trail, and headed off in her direction. He appeared to be more careful than Bluto, pausing to hone in on the path ahead. He passed Bluto and found Olive Oyl first, more than 100 yards from the road, and resumed courting her.

Moments later, Bluto found the pair, Olive Oyl slipped away, and his assault on Popeye began anew.

This sequence played out several more times over the next hour: Popeye would find and court Olive Oyl only to be interrupted by the latecomer, Bluto. Olive Oyl would flee, and Popeye would once again slip away from Bluto’s onslaught.

Bluto bites Popeye (Gophersnakes: tan snakes with reddish-brown to dark brown blotches) in an attempt to deter him from courting Olive Oyl.
Bluto bites Popeye during combat over Olive Oyl.

We don’t know what happened after they all disappeared into a burrow, but we wonder how this cycle might have been broken. Like rock-paper-scissors, the success of a given strategy depends on context. For these Gophersnakes, a new factor, like a predator drawn to commotion, or perhaps the confined space of a burrow, could be enough to settle the outcome. But, from what we witnessed, the whole affair seemed violent, drawn-out, and risky, making rattlesnake combat appear quite sophisticated by comparison!

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