Climate change is having a negative impact on many animals around the world. However, a new study led by the University of Michigan has found that one animal species could benefit from warmer temperatures: rattlesnakes. Since they are cold-blooded animals, rattlesnakes prefer warmer temperatures. Thus, a warming climate may force them to spend less time hibernating and more time in the wild.
Although rattlesnakes are found in every state in the continental United States, they are most commonly found in the Southwest. They are relatively reserved reptiles that mostly avoid human encounters. However, when threatened, they often roll into a fighting stance and begin to lash their tail before attacking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 7,000 and 8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes each year, and about five people die during that time. Even though rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal, they can leave indelible marks: 10 to 44 percent of people bitten suffer long-term injuries, such as loss of the ability to use limbs.
These snakes prefer a body temperature of 86 to 89 degrees Fahrenheit – much higher than in nature. In addition, rattlesnakes that live in hotter climates are larger and more hardy than those that live in colder regions.
“They live at temperatures lower than they would like to live in an ideal world,” said study lead author Hayley Crowell, a doctoral student in the Department of Thermal Ecology at the University of Michigan. “If the climate rises a couple of degrees, these snakes, physiologically speaking, may be happier because it’s closer to their preferred body temperature.”
Thus, if temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, rattlesnake hibernation may end earlier in the spring and may become active much later than before in autumn. However, even if these creatures seem to benefit from warmer temperatures, they may also face some negative effects, such as low availability of prey and water, and an increased risk of being affected by wildfires.
However, as Crowell explained, because rattlesnakes have a lower metabolism than other animals, they don’t need much food to survive.
“A rattlesnake can survive entirely on one or two large squirrels a year if it needs to,” she said, suggesting that overall, climate change would mostly benefit these venomous creatures.
Fortunately, Crowell argues, there’s no need to panic: the increase in rattlesnake activity doesn’t mean “a giant boom in millions of new rattlesnakes.” On the contrary, they will be noticed more often. Most likely, she concluded, the annual number of bites would not increase dramatically.
The study was published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.