- Research has revealed that rattlesnakes, like humans, experience reduced stress when in the company of a snake, a phenomenon known as social buffering.
- Stress can lead to hormonal changes, affect the nervous system, immune response and behavior.
- The study examined 25 wild South Pacific rattlesnakes in various scenarios, measuring their heart rates to assess stress levels and social buffering.
- By controlling small mammal populations, rattlesnakes maintain ecosystem balance and also reduce rodent and tick-borne diseases. However, they often face threats from humans.
If you stress a rattlesnake, make sure it has a friend around. Like humans, stressed snakes are calmed by the presence of a companion, according to new research.
Stress can lead to increased hormone production, resulting in changes in the nervous system, immune response and behavior. Some animals, such as humans, can regulate their stress response when in the company of another animal of their species, which is called social buffering.
“We showed that when two snakes come together and experience a stressful situation, they inhibit each other’s stress response, just like humans do when they experience a stressful event together,” said Chelsea Martin, a Ph.D. student at Loma Linda University and first author of the study published in Frontiers in Ethology.
Snakes can exhibit complex social behavior, but the concept of social buffering in reptiles has not been well studied.
“This slowing of the stress response has never been reported before in any reptile species,” Martin said.
Scientists examined how social buffering affects 25 wild Southern Pacific rattlesnakes (Crotalus helleri), also known as the black diamond rattlesnake, in three different scenarios: when the snakes are alone, in the presence of a partner of the same sex, and in the presence of a rope as an absence life is a matter of control.
Researchers have used heart rate as a reliable indicator of acute stress levels and social buffering. They placed electrodes near the snakes’ hearts and connected sensors to a heart rate monitor. Then they put the snakes in a dark and closed test environment: a bucket.
After 20 minutes, the researchers artificially disrupted the snakes’ environment. Martin then measured the increase in heart rate from baseline, the time it took for the heart rate to return to normal, and the duration of rattling exhibited by the snakes.
The presence of a companion snake significantly reduced heart rate variability, indicating less stress. The researchers worked with wild-caught rattlesnakes, showing that social buffering likely exists in nature and can persist in captivity.
“Our test snakes came from populations that overwinter individually and communally. We found no differences in snake populations that did or did not overwinter in groups,” Martin said. . “We also did not observe a difference in social buffering between the sexes.”
Rattlesnakes are found in most regions of the continental United States, with higher concentrations in the Southwest, and also in Mexico, Central America and South America. While most species of rattlesnake are benign, one species and one subspecies of rattlesnake are officially recognized by the US government as threatened.
Rattlesnakes play an important role in their ecosystems by controlling small mammal populations such as rats. By eating these prey species, rattlesnakes play an important role in preserving the overall health of various species and reducing the transmission of diseases from rodents to humans.
Despite their services, rattlesnakes are at risk of being killed by people who consider them dangerous nuisances rather than recognizing their role as important predators. This fear also has effects on species such as the gopher snake, which is similar to the rattlesnake and is often mistakenly killed due to a false identification.
“Our results provide insights into the social behavior patterns of snakes,” said Martin. “But it can also improve the image of rattlesnakes. In the public eye, they are often maligned. Our findings can help change that.”
Martin, CE, Fox, GA, Putman, BJ, & Hayes, WK (2023). Social security: Can rattlesnakes reduce acute stress through social buffering? Frontiers in Ethology, 21181774. doi:10.3389/metho.2023.1181774
Banner image on rattlesnake by Cade Powell, BLM vis Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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