Rattlesnakes are Awesome Moms!

Did you know that rattlesnakes give birth to live young and take care of their babies? They sure do! Read on for an introduction to rattlesnake family life.

Rattlesnakes are Awesome Moms and mine is too! written on an illustration of a Black-tailed Rattlesnake mom with babies on and next to her
Another awesome design by Emma Hsiao for ASP. Get it on stickers, cards, and more in our Redbubble shop.

Rattlesnake Reproduction in the Southwest US

Above is an illustration of a year in the reproductive life of most* female rattlesnakes in the southwest.

Let’s talk about the different seasons:

  • Monsoon 1 (orange: July — September): Courtship and mating occurs during the monsoon season of the year before she gives birth.
  • Denning (blue: late October — March): They’re in or near their overwinter dens.
  • Emergence (yellow: late March — early May): They emerge from their dens, move to their nesting area (if it’s not the same place they den), and start gestation (i.e., growing babies).
  • Gestation (yellow-orange: May — July): In the late spring and dry summer, moms-to-be are focused on gestation. They often do not eat during this period because nesting areas are not always near hunting areas.
  • Monsoon 2 (orange: July — September): The Nesting season is the first couple weeks of the newborns’ lives, when the family is together. This happens during the monsoon season: early (or even a bit before the rain) for some species (Tiger and Rock Rattlesnakes) and late for others (Black-tailed and Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes).

Rattlesnakes invest A TON into each of their litters, so can usually only give birth every 2-3 years.

You may have also noticed there’s little room for hunting feeding — rattlesnake moms may not eat for an entire year before giving birth!

*As usual in nature, there are interesting exceptions to the general schedule outlined above. For example, Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes will court and mate in the spring too, sometimes right at their overwinter dens, during the emergence period. They also rarely nest where they overwinter and will sometimes continue hunting and feeding throughout their pregnancy. There are also records of Western Diamond-backeds giving birth in consecutive years in the Sonoran Desert, when resources are abundant (lots of rain).

Nesting

Rattlesnakes typically care for their newborns until they shed their skin (ecdysis) for the first time, when they’re one to two weeks old. As they near the time for their first ecdysis, newborns become more independent, exploring the area around the nest and straying farther from their mother. Once they’ve shed their skin, the newborns leave the nest and start hunting on their own.

Mothers play a crucial role in the care and protection of their newborns. They actively defend their young from threats by charging or assuming a defensive posture. If the babies wander too far, mothers might shield them with their bodies or herd them back to the next.

Staying together also offers thermal and hydration benefits. The babies bask on or near their moms on the surface and may continue getting heat from her overnight in the shelter. Newborns also huddle together in groups, called “wads”, to conserve heat and water loss by reducing their exposed skin surface area. This is likely especially important leading up to their first ecdysis. (Click here to learn more about Baby Wads.)

Babysitting!

So now you know that rattlesnakes take care of their kids. But wait; there’s more! Sometimes they take care of their friends’ kids too!?!

Learn more about this super-cool behavior in Rattlesnake Babysitting.

Eve and family (Arizona black rattlesnakes)
Eve and family, plus probably a nestmate’s kids (Arizona Black Rattlesnakes), photographed by Jeff Smith.

Rattlesnake Family Stories

Want more details about rattlesnake family life, videos and stories? Check these out: