July 2, 2013 • 12:40 pm

Here’s the front cover of latest issue of Ethology, a well known journal of animal behavior. It shows two snakes (presumably male) in competition (presumably for females). The caption is cool (my emphasis):

Male western diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox) coming off vertical combat display in Sonoran Desert, Arizona. One is cheating by using the ironwood stump as a crutch and will win the endurance contest.

Photo reproduced by permission of Alex Badyaev (

I didn’t know this species did this, nor that they could cheat!

Picture 1

h/t: Ed Yong via Matthew Cobb

36 thoughts on “Battlesnakes!

      1. Too bad his offspring won’t learn from their father. That skill might come in handy. 🙂

  1. Well cheating implies that the snakes have a formal set of rules of how to engage in competition. I have a high regards of snakes, but I doubt whether they have a board for establishing such rule book.

    1. Yeah, I agree – I love snakes but I highly doubt the snake even realizes he’s “cheating”…he’s probably still all tensed up like his competitor. It’s just a happy accident, imo. Beautiful snakes though – vipers are my favorite.

        1. Elapids scare the bejeebus out of me. Although one of the most stunning snakes I’ve ever seen was a leucistic monocled cobra. Stark white with navy blue eyes. Very rare “morph”. But the way they “S” up their bodies is just too much for me. I have never handled venomous snakes, but having grown up around rattlesnakes I am much more comfortable around the heavy-bodied vipers.

      1. I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking Internet!

        No wait — I haven’t. Moar snakes please! Snake photographers especially.



          1. Beautiful animal. I wonder if the colourings works as a “don’t touch” warning for predatory animals.

          2. They are breathtaking. Pictures don’t do them justice for sure. That glow is intense, especially around the head. That’s a good question re: the “don’t touch” warning. I don’t know off the top of my head…I’m thinking the colorings blend into their surroundings, but then why the intense glow? Unless predators can’t really “see” the sheen like we do? I’m not aware of other snakes with this rainbow glow. As a side note, I had 2 of them when I was breeding various lizards and snakes and they were the most aggressive snakes I had. They always struck at me. You never know how fast you can move until a snake strikes at you’s very primal. Made me feel bad that they felt so threatened. I found a good home for them eventually where they could enjoy a very large enclosure (I didn’t have them in a small enclosure by any means, but this new one was a luxury condo lol).

          3. Super cool. I worked briefly with constrictors during my 6 months as a zookeeper and the raw power of these animals are awe inspiring. I learned to respect the animals boundaries and to keep my hands to myself especially during feeding time.

            Since then, snakes have been one of my favourite animals. Amazing creatures.

          4. Holyfuckingshit, that snake is GORGEOUS! God damn!

            What species is it?

            And where might one go to pay homage to such a beastie?

            Too bad they’re not the cuddly type….


          5. So glad you like them! It’s not often I have something to bring to the table here! They are called Brazilian Rainbow Boas ( They may have different dispositions, but all the ones I’ve been around have been aggressive and high strung.
            If you have a dedicated reptile store, odds are you can see one there…and even handle one if you dare..their bites aren’t bad..just a quick tap and then you’re bleeding lol. We have the East Bay Vivarium out in Berkeley which is one of the top reptile stores in the country. Very clean, very knowledgable. You should see their iguana and tortoise salads…looks like a high-end gourmet restaurant. I might add that there is nothing cuter than a herd of baby tortoises lining up for nummies.

          6. Thanks for the details.

            There are reptile stores in the Valley of the Sun, but I’m not at all familiar with any of them. There is, however, an Arizona Herpetological Society, and I’m sure they could point me in the right direction.



  2. There is lying/cheating elsewhere in the animal kingdom too. In the tropics most birds group together in mixed-species flocks, which give them some safety from predators (a hundred eyes are better than two). They often organize around an insectivore with a loud alarm call. The birds freeze when the central insectivore species utters its alarm. But if the insectivore sees a bird scare up some big delicious morsel, it sometimes “lies” and gives its alarm call, freezing all the other birds, and giving the “liar” a chance to catch the insect.

    1. There was something similar along those lines in Attenborough’s Africa series earlier this year: a bird (a Drongo?) imitating meerkats’ alarm call. It would start out by giving the alarm when potential predators approached, thus earning their trust. At a later point, as soon as they found something tasty to eat, the bird would lie and give the alarm only to disperse the meerkats and steal their food.

      1. Excellent, I hadn’t known that. My example was from the neotropics and involved Shrike-tanagers, which belong to a group that is not in Africa. So convergent evolution.

  3. I’m thinking that, if this type of cheating become common, the display may well evolve somehow to discourage / defeat it. Perhaps instead of holding the posture still, the snakes will eventually hold the posture whilst circling each other.

    It’d be really interesting to have the chance to make such observations over geologic time scales — perhaps the thing I’d most want from practical immortality. I’d need some way to speed up the clock, though, such as suspended animation. Wake up every century or so, spend a year or two seeing what’s changed, go back to sleep. Otherwise, the sheer boredom of watching the redwoods grow would probably do me in….


    1. Or maybe females would evolve to look for a male away from structures you can use to “cheat”. They are the ones with the vested interest in getting the best male.

    2. LOL Ben @ watching redwoods grow. That would also keep it slightly less painful if you didn’t have the chance to make strong connections and bonds with other people. Although how lonely would that be? Still..I want to see what we do, where we go. That would be my interest in immortality. When do we truly reach the stars?

      Again, I don’t think it was active cheating. I’ve been around too many snakes. They can be opportunistic, but they don’t particularly excel at the problem-solving. Of course my experience is with mainly captive-bred snakes.

      1. Presumably, one would stay in synch with those you care about.

        When will we reach the stars? Almost assuredly never.

        The moon is about as hard for us to get to as the New World was in Columbus’s day — and, today, it’s not particularly remarkable to have breakfast in Paris and dinner / lunch in New York.

        Once somebody in the jet-set crowd can have breakfast in Tokyo and lunch on the Moon, then Jupiter will be as much of a challenge as the Moon is today.

        When you can have breakfast on Venus and dinner on Jupiter, Pluto will be ripe for colonization.

        When you can have breakfast on the planetary-scale antimatter manufacturing stations in close solar orbit, well inside Mercury’s orbit, and still be able to make it to Pluto in time for dinner, then we can think about a manned mission to the closest stars.

        But, if we make it that far, it’s all but a guarantee that we’ll overpopulate the entire galaxy in no more than a couple dozen millennia — such is the nature of exponential growth. That no other species has exponentially grown to the point that their constructor fleets are turing the Earth into an hyperspace bypass (or, rather, simply plugging the Sun into the galactic power network and sucking it dry), it’s pretty safe to suggest that the odds of us doing so are negligible.



  4. Cheating is what everything is about – bluff & counter-bluff. Human society is ‘designed’ to avoid cheating as much as possible as cheating, getting a free ride, is easier in larger groupings.

    This is the ‘sneaky fucker’ if you will pardon the expression coined by Maynard Smith I believe.

  5. Alex Badyaev is not only an excellent evolutionary biologist, he is one of the best wildlife photographers out there. His and other photos are definitely worth checking out. He has some unbelievable shots!!

    I’m a fan of his research and his photography skills.

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