A conversation with reptile researcher Melissa Amarello about unexpected Arizona black rattlesnake behavior she’s captured with Wingscapes PlantCams
Melissa Amarello has a soft spot for an underdog, and that empathy has led her to a relatively unusual scientific exploit: she studies rattlesnakes. A graduate student at Arizona State University, Amarello is spying on Arizona black rattlesnakes as part of her doctoral dissertation work. Since her research includes liberal use of Wingscapes time lapse cameras, we asked her about it. See her many interesting photos and videos at her SocialSnakes blog.
Q: How did you get interested in snakes?
MA: I’ve been into snakes since I was a little girl; I just always really liked them. A lot of people don’t like them, either to research or in general, so I feel like they need help. That’s always appealed to me.
Q: And why are you focusing on rattlesnakes in particular?
MA: Rattlesnakes are the most hated and feared snakes, at least in this country, but they’re really interesting. And when looking at behavior, it’s a lot easier to study behavior in rattlesnakes than in other snakes. They’re a little less secretive. You actually get to see them doing things. For a while, I worked with San Francisco garter snakes, which are really charismatic and beautiful, but the only thing you ever see them doing is sliding into a pond to get away from you. But even when they’re hunting, rattlesnakes will find a good spot and sit and wait for food. They don’t move around as much.
Q: What’s the focus of your study?
MA: I’m investigating social behavior with a naturalist with The Nature Conservancy. Rattlesnakes give birth to live babies, and the mothers take care of their young. We’ve known that for a while, but what exactly that care looked like wasn’t really clear. The cameras have revealed poorly documented and previously unknown behaviors.
For instance, last year we got footage of one of the females during her pregnancy and then interacting with her kids, and we have an awesome one-day time-lapse sequence of her and the kids. One of the little ones starts to crawl away from the group, and when they’re young, just a couple of days old, the mothers appear not to like that. In the footage, you get to see her tap the back of the young one with her head, and the babies always respond by coming back to the group.
We’re also investigating the relatedness of groups of snakes, so we’re catching them and taking DNA samples.
Q: How long have you been working with the time-lapse cameras?
MA: When we first started this project in the spring of 2010, we didn’t have the cameras. We were just doing it the old-school way — sitting and watching. It’s hard, even when that’s what you do, because a lot of snake families spend all their time under a rock, so you can’t see it. It takes a lot of patience. You could only do it for a couple of hours without getting bored or hungry or uncomfortable. Plus, we were trying to get natural behavior, and we don’t know if they may be altering their behavior based on our presence.
There was another rattlesnake researcher who had used security-type cameras to look at feeding behavior, but those setups were about $900 for everything we needed, which meant we could afford one of them. Not great. Then a friend sent an email to a bunch of us who are interested in rattlesnakes. I don’t know how he found out about the PlantCam, but he’d used one, and we were like, “Wow, pretty neat.” Then we found out how little they cost and thought, “Oh my God, we can get so many of these!”
We got our first couple at the end of the field season in 2010, and we just love them. We see the most social behavior in the spring when the snakes come out of their dens, where they overwinter in groups, so we really started using the cameras last spring. We had 15 set up for six weeks, running all during the day.
The time-lapse cameras are great because even when the snakes are moving, they move pretty slowly, so having a picture taken every 30 seconds or a minute is ideal and makes for nice, smooth videos. We’re still going through all those images.
Q: Did you have any challenges getting started with the time lapse cameras?
MA: They were super easy to set up, especially having fooled with a security camera, a car battery, and an inverter. And those solar panels are awesome to extend the battery life. The only bummer until now was that the PlantCam only takes 7,600 photos, so that limited the time we could leave it. But I think the new TimelapseCam cameras are limited only by how big a memory card you have, so that will be great.
Also, we’ve used the ASAP setting a little bit [which takes a shot every few seconds for near-continues video], and that’s nice, but we can only do that for one day and then it drains the solar panels and fills up the memory card. That requires a lot more maintenance. So 30 seconds is what we use most often; we stretch it out to a minute if we need to leave them in place for a week or more.
Q: How have you set up the time lapse cameras to observe the snakes?
MA: Our main study site has two dens and several nesting sites for the females in central Arizona. We’ve also have started putting cameras on some western diamondback rattlesnake dens in other areas.
Security is something we worry about, since most of the places we use the cameras are public land or national forest. We usually use tripods and try to keep them low profile, with something between them and the nearest trail, or we put the camera in a tree where they’re not as visible. We try not to draw too much attention, because if you don’t like rattlesnakes, a good way to kill a lot of them is to find a site where they hang out in groups. We haven’t had that happen yet, but we’re careful.
Q: Is it easy to tell the snakes apart?
MA: We’re eventually investigating relatedness, so we need DNA samples, and we catch the snakes to do that. When we do, we put a unique paint combination on their rattles. But most of the snakes we haven’t captured yet. Luckily, Arizona black rattlesnakes have enough weird patterns in the blotches on their backs to give them a unique look. Except for some of the very little ones, we see them well enough with the cameras for that to work pretty well.
Q: What have the cameras helped you to learn?
MA: Besides the spring basking they do outside their dens, we used them this past year to look at their interactions, and we saw things that we didn’t see, and wouldn’t have, without the cameras. For instance, we had squirrels coming up and threatening our snake families, and that’s not something that would happen when a human is sitting nearby. Another predator’s not going to come. I don’t think the squirrels actually killed and ate any of the rattlesnakes, but we did get to see that natural interaction, which is not something that’s been seen with a mother and baby rattlesnakes before.
We’ve also had cameras on some dens over this winter because we wanted to see how often the snakes might come out in December or January to drink water and bask.  [She laughs.] Not very often. That is gigabytes of nothing.
When we presented at a rattlesnake research meeting last summer, some of the behaviors we had gotten with the cameras just amazed people. You just don’t see the animals behave that way when you’re there. That’s really cool.
Q: Do you have a favorite snake?
MA: My favorite snake changes depending on who I’ve been watching and what they’ve been up to, but there’s a female we call Cap Mama. She’s one of my favorites. We got to see her basking with the little ones, which was really special. She’s a really beautiful old snake.
Q: How risky is it to capture the snakes when you need to?
MA: It’s something you learn how to do safely, but it’s not what’s often portrayed on television. We use snake tongs, which basically look like the tools people use to pick up trash. They’ve got a handle and a little grabby thing on the end. It’s not violent for the snakes, and it’s not dangerous. We also have these clear plastic tubes that we put the snake’s head inside when we’re handling them so we can paint their tails or get blood.
Sometimes you’ll see people grabbing snakes behind the head, which is a little risky for the person, but it also almost always damages the snake’s spine and the bones in its head. They have tiny, delicate bones, almost like birds’.
Q: What are you looking forward to in the coming spring season?
MA: Using anthropomorphic terms, we’ll look for friendships. Are there certain pairs of rattlesnakes that like to hang out together more than with the group? Are there certain snakes that are never seen coiled up next to each other, even though they share the same basking site? Those are the kinds of things we’re hoping to catch and see if it’s the same from year to year.
On the Arizona black rattlesnakes, we’re also looking for interaction between mothers and their offspring from the previous year or two years ago. That’s not something that’s been documented, so that will be really interesting to see.
With the western diamondback, you get males fighting over females at the dens, which is cool. We did get a little bit of that last year, but we were still figuring out to use the cameras and playing with settings, so I’m hoping we’ll get better footage this year. More courtship behavior between the males and the females would be good, too.
We’re really excited about the new camera’s 10-second setting, too. It’ll be nice to play with that.
Q: How do you expect your research to be used?
MA: A big conservation problem for snakes is that because people don’t like them, it’s hard to get support when you need to manage land in a certain way to protect snakes. Or they want to kill them. So for me, it’s very important to do outreach, especially with kids, to educate them about snakes and show the public that they’re not these solitary, cold-blooded killers. They’re actually caring parents that live in groups. They may have rattlesnake friends, and we’re investigating relatedness within these groups because it could be that they’re extended families.
That puts snakes on par with dolphins and primates and whales and all those other charismatic species that are social and live in groups. It makes people see them in a different way, and I think that could help with conservation.
Best wishes with that worthwhile effort, Melissa, and with the completion of your doctoral work. Thanks for sharing your passion with Wingscapes!