Dynamic aggregations of newborn sibling rattlesnakes exhibit stable thermoregulatory properties


Ryan L. Earley, Department of Biology, California State University at Fresno, 2555 E. San Ramon, Ave., M/S SB73, Fresno, California 93740, USA.
Tel: 559 278 2001; Fax: 559 278 3963
Email: rearley@csufresno.edu


Information on behavioural and physiological processes of newborn reptiles is often difficult to obtain under natural conditions, especially in lizards and snakes. Consequently, we lack information on a wide range of biological phenomena (e.g. thermoregulation, digestion, circadian activity rhythms) in neonates of these taxa. Here, we report novel behaviour in newborn sibling sidewinder rattlesnakes Crotalus cerastes, a desert-inhabiting species of south-western North America. At the entrances of their natal burrows, neonates formed aggregations (‘balls’) during daylight hours, which involved frequent movements of individuals within these balls. Through the study of two radio-telemetered females and their litters (n=20 offspring), we obtained temperature data from the mothers, centre of the snake balls, and from multiple sites in the immediate environment for 10 days post-birth, the period that is coincident with maternal attendance and the first cycle of ecdysis. The core temperatures of the snake balls showed significant stability over the extreme thermal ranges of the environment. Although other functions are possible, such as those related to water conservation and antipredator defence, we suggest that frequent movements of individuals within the balls involved selection of a thermal optimum to enhance ecdysis. Based on other studies of aggregation in animals, dynamic aggregative behaviour in newborn sibling C. cerastes implicates self-assembly and suggests that individuals benefit from behavioural interactions with their siblings. One plausible scenario for the evolution of this type of dynamic aggregation involves thermal selection among sibling neonates for optimal basking sites within natal refugia in extreme environments such as desert landscapes. Moreover, it is possibly limited to species of vipers (and other snakes) that are viviparous and where maternal care is present up to the time of shedding in neonates.