Brandon Keim is a science journalist who reports on animal intelligence, conservation, and ecology.
This weekend the town of Sweetwater, Texas, will hold what's billed as the world's largest rattlesnake roundup.
In recent months, hundreds of rattlesnakes have been captured, pulled from their dens with hooks or flushed out with gasoline, then stored in barrels. On the big day, they will be tossed in a pit, displayed to a cheering audience, and then slaughtered.
It's the largest of dozens of roundups held each spring across the southern U.S., events that are roundly condemned by animal advocates for diminishing snake populations, upsetting local ecosystems, and generally encouraging cruelty toward wildlife.
But there's another, less appreciated concern: Rattlesnakes are more like us than we think. (See "They Kill. They Joust. They Heal. Reptiles in 10 Awesome Photos.")
Ongoing research reveals the reptiles are more advanced than we ever imagined—for instance, a recent study has shown that they even have friends. It's a concept not usually associated with scaly snakes who are the literal opposite of warm and fuzzy.
And yet, in the words of Melissa Amarello, a herpetologist and founder of Advocates for Snake Preservation, "they're shy, gentle creatures with rich family lives. They can have friends. They take care of their kids."
Snakes may be limbless, cold-blooded, and separated from us by a few hundred million years of evolution, but they're similar enough that we should feel empathy for them, says Amarello, who has launched a campaign against snake roundups.
Not too long ago, Amarello's plea could have been dismissed as well-meaning anthropomorphism.
Even among people open to the notion that many animals think and feel in deep, often complex ways, snakes—and reptiles in general—weren't thought to have much going on upstairs. Yet that wasn't quite fair.
Their lack of facial expressions and vocal communication, the very traits that humans rely upon to make sense of one another, predisposed people to consider snakes unfeeling. (See National Geographic's amazing snake pictures.)
Snakes' perceptual world, attuned to temperature and smell rather than sight, is so fundamentally different from our own that it was hard to test their intelligence.
That wasn't the snakes' shortcoming, though. It was ours.
Slowly but steadily, evidence of unexpectedly sophisticated snake behavior has accumulated. Amarello's own research used time-lapse cameras to document social interactions of Arizona black rattlesnakes. Some proved to be loners and others social, with a distinct preference for the company of certain conspecifics—or, in a less fancy word, friends.
Other researchers have described the attentiveness of rattlesnake mothers to their young, as well as a long-unrecognized complexity of social interaction.
They're Just Like Us
All this comes at a moment of blossoming awareness about reptiles in general: tool-using alligators, playful turtles, problem-solving lizards. (Also see "Crocodiles Play, Too, Study Says—Why Do Animals Have Fun?")
And while reptile emotions remain poorly studied, they're not something to dismiss.
"Snakes have many brain systems similar to ours," explains Gordon Burghardt, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Tennessee and pioneer in the study of reptile cognition.
"They have a lot of the same motivations: to feed, reproduce, protect themselves against enemies."
He emphasizes a subtle, crucial point: Consciousness isn't the same thing as intelligence. One doesn't have to be a genius to feel deeply.
Which brings us back to rattlesnake roundups like those in Sweetwater. The din of rattles from roundup pits is the sound of fear; the unusual scent is the chemical communication of their terror.
"It's important to realize that we want to protect these animals not just because they're spectacular, or interesting, or important parts of ecosystems, or because they're endangered," says Burghardt, "but because they're sentient creatures sharing this planet who we need to respect and value in their own right."
Why You Should Care
In the past, many conservationists have argued that we should not kill snakes because they're so cool—they can sense prey with infrared vision!—and they keep down rodent populations, or because it's our ethical duty to protect declining and endangered snake species.
In Amarello's own experiences, though, she's found those arguments simply don't work. To many people, snakes are just creepy, if not downright scary.
What registers instead, she says, are showing people videos of rattlesnake moms and stories of their individual lives.
"That really seems to change how people think about them," Amarello says.
"People say, 'I used to kill every snake in my yard, but I'm going to consider not doing that now.' Which is a pretty big deal.”
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