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could . . . [repel] predators who could more easily cope with a lone female.” 31 Non-
etheless, it wasn't until almost forty years later that we published decisive evidence for
widespread parental care in pitvipers.
Simplistic notions of snake sociality went out the window in 1995 with a phone call
that began, “You're not going to believe this!” Dave had found superfemale 21 lying out-
side her gestation site, an abandoned rock squirrel burrow, with six babies about three
days old, in pre-shed condition. For another week they basked together, and if Dave
got close, the neonates fled to safety, with 21 backing in after them. On the tenth day
each baby shed in front of the obviously attentive mom; next morning there were six en-
twined translucent skins, the young had disappeared, and she was forty yards away at a
woodrat nest, hunting for her first meal since the previous fall. Some other females, we
subsequently learned, never left the nest while babies basked, whereas one advanced
on humans and dragged an errant youngster back into their hole. We later showed that
parental care characterizes most pitvipers, and in my public talks their maternal beha-
vior has proved especially useful for inspiring empathy for snakes.
Human phobias are deeply rooted but also impressively variable—spiders and
heights unnerve me, whereas Philippe Petit, the “Man on a Wire” between the World
Trade Center towers, is terrified of “snakes, anything with too many feet or not enough
feet!” 32 —which suggests that we might come to better understand our fears and tran-
scend millions of years of snake-primate conflict. In 2011, 254 aficionados gathered at
a rattlesnake conference in Tucson, a level of enthusiasm inconceivable when I was a
graduate student; among the presentations were field observations of substitute par-
enting by Arizona black rattlesnakes and experiments revealing that rattlers excel at
single-trial learning compared to other pitvipers. 33 I came away wondering what new
surprises await us and ever more convinced that research plays a central role in valuing
nature, a proposition we'll explore further in Part Three.
Meanwhile, life winds on like a serpent, seeking shelter, food, and sex, never know-
ing what lies ahead. Explorer John Cadle found an Andean short-tailed snake that froze
to death while swallowing a lizard 34 —not usually risky behavior, but at fourteen thou-
sand feet late-afternoon temperatures plummet. Perhaps a nearby boulder cast frigid
shadows or clouds obscured the mountainside; for whatever reason, heat dissipated
rapidly, and with one last, laborious jaw excursion the rear-fanged killer itself slipped
into stillness. As for the blacktails, some we'd watched for years were healthy one day,
bones picked clean by ants the next; a few older snakes declined for months, rarely
moving, then abruptly drew flies. On a happier note, twelve years after we first met our
superfemale, an email from Dave read, “No signal from 21, so the radio's failed and
we're done tracking.” For all of death's inevitability, I'm thankful for having only pleas-
ant memories of my favorite snake—swallowing cottontails and rock squirrels, mating
under a century plant with giant male 26, and lounging in the sun with her young.
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