Misunderstood snakes have a soft side, research has confirmed

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Warm and sly are adjectives that don’t come to mind when one thinks of snakes.

But new research at Loma Linda University near San Bernardino, California, may change that, showing that the venomous rattler, like humans, finds it comforting to be close to its own kind.

The study, published this week in the journal Frontiers in Ethology, found that the snakes seemed to feel better when they were huddled together with other passengers for group hugs. The findings challenge the notion that reptiles are solitary predators with little insight into complex social behavior.

The research was led by Chelsea Martin, a Loma Linda doctoral student in biology, and her faculty advisor, the William Hayes Professor of Earth and Biological Sciences.

Ecology, the study of animal behavior, has long recognized that birds and mammals, including humans, find comfort in being physically close to their own kind. Such closeness can make reptiles more relaxed, lower their heart rates and reduce anxiety — not much different from humans, Hayes says.

“Unfortunately for rattlesnakes and other lower vertebrates and vertebrates, we rarely give them that credit,” Hayes said.

“People are eager to cut their throats,” Hayes said, adding, “Animals are sentient, emotional.”

Hayes came up with the idea for the study in his spare time when he was called upon to pick up noises that homeowners in the mountains of Southern California had heard.

Hayes said he puts the captured snake in a bucket and delivers it to the wild, where the creature is often shaking in anger. But he said he noticed that when two or more snakes were in the bucket, the jaws became lighter.

The calming effect when organisms are close to their own kind is called social distancing.

“It tells us that when they’re with another snake, it reduces their stress response,” Martin said. “It’s never been reported in reptiles before. It’s something humans do.”

To measure stress levels in snakes, Martin used a heart rate monitor designed for humans.

“It makes us realize, as humans, hey, we’re not that different from these snakes,” Martin said. They are doing what we are doing.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Frank McGurty and Will Dunham)

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