At a certain time of year, a male snake focuses his efforts on breeding. He moves long distances in search of potential mates (a video of this behavior, scent-trailing, can be seen here). However, finding a female is only the first step; now he must convince her to mate with him.

A pair of black-tailed rattlesnakes: Jaydin (male, left) and Persephone (female, right).

Rattlesnakes are great romantics. Males may spend a week or more courting one female to convince her of his worth. How he does this is the subject of today’s post.

A male may sit nearby, next to, or even stacked on top of a female, presumably to guard her from other suitors.

test phrase

Male western diamond-backed rattlesnake stacked on top of a female. Can you see her face?

If another male comes to call, they may engage in combat over the prized female. We will discuss combat in more detail in a future post, but for now let’s look at courtship through our favorite snake, Jaydin (male black-tailed rattlesnake).

On 18 July, we were excited to see Jaydin with a beautiful female, who we now know as Persephone.

Persephone (left) and Jaydin (right).

Persephone (left) and Jaydin (right).

We set up a timelapse camera to better observe their courtship. Here’s a clip from their third day together:

Jaydin crawls out of their shelter first and coils at the bottom left of the screen. Persephone emerges shortly thereafter. Jaydin immediately goes to Persephone and begins chin-rubbing her, which is exactly what it sounds like: he rubs her body with his chin to express his intent. This behavior starts about five seconds in and continues throughout. Much more vigorous chin-rubbing can be seen in the following videos.

Perhaps to show she’s not ready, a female may quickly flip her tail at the male. We never observed Persephone doing this, but we have seen it in Arizona black rattlesnakes:

At ~eight seconds in, the female Arizona black rattlesnake literally smacks the male in his face with her tail. Does this mean “no” or “not yet”? We also don’t know how much rejection a male will take before he gives up or how much chin-rubbing a female needs to acquiesce.

While Persephone didn’t smack Jaydin away, neither did they appear to mate. And indeed they were still together:
…the next day
…and two days after that.

The fourth evening (21 July) Jaydin moved and we assumed that courtship was over. His signal was again coming from overhead, which seemed an unlikely place for courtship. But Persephone likes to climb as much as Jaydin does.

Jaydin & Persephone over 2 yards up in a tree.

Jaydin & Persephone overhead in a tree, 21 July 2012.

Close-up of Jaydin & Persephone over 2 yards up in a tree.

Jaydin & Persephone as seen from a nearby tree, 21 July 2012.

After three more days, they were still together at a new spot on the ground. Again we set up our camera here to record their behavior.

A week-long courtship ends in mating! Sometimes it is difficult to tell, but Jaydin was never camera-shy, so he made it very obvious for us 🙂 (Check out the video at ~55 seconds).

When we next tracked Jaydin, he was ~15 yards away and there was no sign of Persephone. When we took the camera down, we found another male black-tailed rattlesnake! Perhaps he was after Persephone too…

As you may have guessed, this is not the last you’ll see of Persephone, Jaydin and Persephone, or the new male. Stay tuned for more!

melissa & jeff

For a very different story of snake courtship and combat, check out Ménage à trois, a story of three gophersnakes.