by Judy Eckart, Tri-Valley Conservancy Volunteer and Supporter
In early April, my spouse and I had the good fortune to see a pair of rattlesnakes dancing in Holdener Park in Livermore. We had walked, as we often do, from the intersection of Arroyo and Wetmore Roads onto a wide paved path that heads east into the park. Soon after entering Holdener, we saw a 4-foot-long rattlesnake sunning itself on the path. Very carefully, we detoured to the edge of the adjacent wide dirt path and passed the snake. A few minutes later, we saw something ahead of us in the high grass on the northern side of the path, just next to the mowed verge: It was a snake that seemed to be standing up about two feet high. Very strange! And intimidating. Mark and I stopped and then saw another snake head, winding around the body of the first snake. Both snakes swiveled, separated, wound together again, raised and lowered their heads, and wound around some more as they watched each other. The snakes were mostly hidden in the tall grass but we had a good view as they wound together and apart, almost as if they were dancing in a sinuous, fascinating, but very creepy way. After watching for about five minutes, we turned around and headed home, deciding that it was a really good time for discretion.
It turns out that an online search for “rattlesnakes dancing” actually gets valuable results. So now I know: Is the dance a courtship display? No. Mating ritual? No. The snakes were both males and were vying for breeding rights while being careful to not actually bite each other. Both rattlesnakes and gopher snakes, their nonvenomous look-alikes, have these springtime dance-like contests, which can last for up to an hour, until one of the snakes is knocked over by the other and slithers away. I am still wondering how this is known and wondering about the anthropomorphism, but supposedly the loser snake is so humiliated that he does not breed at all during the season, though he amicably shares territory with the victorious male.
The first snake we saw that day was gone when we walked home past its sunbathing spot. Now I figure it was a female and, perhaps, the inspiration for a dance.
You can read more about rattlesnakes dancing in the Livermore Area Recreation and Park District Newsletter here. And be sure to check out their cool video for a safer way to see rattlesnake dancing for yourself!