When botany student Claire Ciafre spotted a trio of cottonmouths swamp-wrestling in a pond in Alabama last month, she wasn't quite sure what the pit vipers were up to. She'd never witnessed this sort of behaviour before, but knew that video footage of the sighting may be scientifically useful (plus it would likely make her lab-mates jealous), so she whipped out her phone and captured the dance-fight on camera. It turns out Ciafre captured three male cottonmouths battling for mating rights - a behaviour that is not often witnessed in the wild.


"I’d never seen that behaviour ... and incorrectly assumed they were mating," explains Ciafre a botany student at Austin Peay State University (APSU) in Clarksville, Tennessee. Snake fights are often confused with mating rituals, which is not surprising as there are some similarities: courting snakes may raise their bodies up in unison, but they will not thrash about violently in the manner seen here.

"Snake mating is generally a subtle and low-key interaction," explained wildlife ecologist David Steen regarding a similar video. "Mating snakes will also typically have their tails wrapped around each other as the male inserts his hemipene into the female's cloaca."

Cottonmouth courtship is a slow and undramatic process.

When cottonmouths court, it's a slow, undramatic process. Dominance battles, however, are a lot more vigorous. Cottonmouths will sway back and forth and stretch skywards before slamming their opponent into the ground (or water in this case). Their bodies often become intertwined as they wrestle to gain an advantage over their rival. Eventually the weaker snake (or snakes) will make a hasty retreat, leaving the victor with a shot at mating with any females in the vicinity.

Battles for dominance or mating rights are common throughout the animal kingdom and rarely do they end in death. “The goal of these fights is not to injure or kill each other; otherwise this behaviour would be extremely risky and there would be a ton of dead animals everywhere," Steen explained. "The goal is to establish dominance."

This trio battled for about 10 minutes, but these bouts can go on for hours. "The two ‘losers’ will ultimately give up and leave," Ciafre said in an article on the APSU website. "I imagine that the losers either get too exhausted to continue or just realise it’s not worth the effort. This means that only the biggest, strongest and/or healthiest males will contribute to the gene pool."

This 'dominance dance' is rarely witnessed, much less recorded on camera, and Ciafre's video has been viewed thousands of times since it was uploaded to the APSU's Herpetology Facebook page. “I definitely didn’t expect the video to be as successful as it was,” she said, adding that she hopes the clip can help educate people about snakes and chip away at their undeserved bad rap. "Getting people curious about a behaviour, and then therefore the animal, is the first step to getting them to accept that animal. I hope my video helped some to realise that these animals can be fascinating and worth our respect and appreciation."


Top header image: Kenneth Cole Schneider/Flickr