Even if you’ve never lived in rattlesnake territory, you know what the sound of a snake’s rattle means: Beware! A shake of its rattle is an effective way for a snake to communicate to a potential predator that an attack could result in a venomous bite.
For more than a century, scientists have posited how that rattle might have evolved. The rattle is composed of segments of keratin (the same stuff that makes up human hair), and specialized muscles in a snake’s tail vibrate those segments rapidly to create the rattling sound. The rattlesnake’s rattle is a trait that evolved only once in the past and is now found in only two closely related genera of snakes that live in North and South America. But plenty of other species of snakes also vibrate their tails as a warning to potential predators.
Bradley Allf and colleagues at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill think that the tail vibration and the evolution of the rattle might be connected. They gathered 155 snakes of 56 species — 38 species from the Viperidae family, which includes rattlesnakes, and 18 species from the largest snake family, Colubridae — from museums, zoos and private collectors. Working with captive snakes let them control conditions, such as temperature, that can affect tail vibration. With each snake, one of the researchers tried to get it to behave defensively by waving a stuffed animal in front of it. The team videotaped the snakes as they vibrated their tails, or not.
The researchers plotted the snakes’ tail vibration duration and rate against how closely related a species was to rattlesnakes. One group of snakes that lives in the Americas was taken out of the analysis because its tail vibrations were so similar to those of rattlesnakes; it appears that these species are mimicking the dangerous snakes that live near them (not a bad strategy for survival). Among the rest of the snakes analyzed, those that were more closely related had tail behavior that was more similar to that of rattlesnakes.
“Our results suggest that tail vibration by rattleless ancestors of rattlesnakes may have served as the signal precursor to rattlesnake rattling behavior,” the researchers write in the October issue of the American Naturalist. “If ancestral tail vibration was a reliable cue to predators that a bite was imminent, then this behavior could have become elaborated as a defensive signal.”
Allf and his colleagues propose a couple of ways that this could have happened. Perhaps snakes that made noise with their tails were better at startling predators, and this may have prompted such noise-making tail features to spread and eventually become refined into what is now a rattle. Or maybe snakes that shook their tails longer and faster developed calluses of keratin. If these calluses provided better warning, that may have somehow evolved into a rattle.
“Thus, the rattlesnake rattle might have evolved via elaboration of a simple behavior,” they conclude.