Animals around the world have felt the negative effects of climate change, but there’s one slippery creature that could benefit: rattlesnakes.
Rattlesnakes can be found in every state in the continental US, according to Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, but they are commonly found in the Southwest. One of the most well-known snakes in the world, rattlesnakes are relatively reserved reptiles that avoid human confrontation, but when threatened they will often curl into a conspicuous position and begin to rattle their distinctive tail before giving a venomous bite.
A new study published earlier this month in the journal Ecology and Evolution suggests that rattlesnakes may spend less time hibernating and more time in the wilderness as the planet warms.
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The reasoning has to do with the fact that rattlesnakes are cold-blooded animals. Hayley Crowell, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, and her team studied the Pacific rattlesnake because it lives in desert areas like Southern California and colder climates like Washington state.
Researchers observed that the snakes preferred body temperatures of about 86-89 degrees Fahrenheit, much warmer than those found in the wild. Also, those from warmer climates seemed much larger than those from colder conditions.
“They exist at temperatures cooler than where they would want to be in a perfect world,” Crowell told USA TODAY. “If the climate rises a few degrees, these snakes may, from a physiological standpoint, be happier because it’s closer to their desired body temperature.”
If temperatures continue to rise, Crowell said it could mean hibernation for rattlesnakes ends earlier in the spring, and they could still be active late in the fall on their way to winter.
“Basically just more time to grow and do rattlesnake stuff,” she said.
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Even if rattlesnakes benefit from warmer temperatures, they still have some negative effects from it; it is expected that there will be fewer prey such as squirrels and lizards, and snakes may fall victim to increased wildfires and low water availability.
Still, rattlesnakes have a way of countering eating less, as Crowell’s team also noted that they have lower metabolisms than their counterparts, and could be content with eating just a dozen times a year.
“They just don’t need a lot of food to survive,” she said. “A rattlesnake can fully survive on just one or two large ground squirrels per year if needed.”
Even without much food, humans continue to fall victim to rattlesnakes and other venomous snake bites.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 7,000 to 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year, with an average of five deaths in that time span. But being bitten by a rattlesnake can leave a lasting impression, with 10% to 44% of people being bitten by rattlesnakes with final injuries such as loss of the ability to use limbs or having a disability.
Fortunately, Crowell said not to panic; more rattlesnake activity does not mean “a giant boom of millions more rattlesnakes”. Instead, they may be noticed more often and will not drastically increase the annual number of bites.
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