Lovers and Fighters

The male combat “dance” of snakes – rattlesnakes among them – is an affair wherein the obvious isn’t the truth, and the truth is stranger than the obvious (Laurence Klauber, in Rattlesnakes, p. 703)

When we think of combat, graphic images of violent competition come to mind: humans with swords or guns, sheep ramming their heads together, or cats fighting with tooth and claw. Even tortoises, which seem like peaceful creatures, attempt to flip their opponent onto their backs – a potentially lethal sentence.

So venomous snakes, considered by some to be ruthless, cold-blooded killers, must put on quite a show when they fight.

And they do, but it is not the bloody spectacle you might expect. As Klauber said, “the truth is stranger than the obvious.

A pair of male western diamond-backed rattlesnakes in combat over an unseen female.

Rattlesnake combat is an elaborate wrestling match, where each male tries to topple the other. Although rattlesnakes are not immune to their own venom, they rarely bite during combat and there is little rattling.

In fact, the contest can be so tranquil that it is often mistaken for courtship between a male and female (courtship dance).

So how do you differentiate between rattlesnake courtship and combat?

Rattlesnakes rarely elevate their head or body during courtship, while this behavior is characteristic of combat. But the biggest difference is that it takes two to tango, or combat: both males are active participants. Courtship, on the other hand, involves a lot of action by the male, rubbing his face on the female’s body to get her interested in him and trying to get his tail positioned correctly, often with little noticeable response from the female.

In the timelapse video above, Jaydin (male black-tailed rattlesnake) courts Persephone (female). Jaydin is usually on the left and you can see he is doing most of the movement, until the end when Persephone drags poor Jaydin away by his…

In the following video Jaydin and Marty (another male) engage in combat. As is usually the case, we found Persephone nearby.

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 result in a fight. But males do engage in non-violent combat for females.

Combat and courtship in non-venomous snakes is quite different; there is biting and blood may be shed. For a story about gophersnake lovers and fighters, with lots of videos, check out Ménage à trois parts 1 and 2.