Two male Southern Pacific rattlesnakes compete on South Ridge Trail while possibly a female watches from the side.
Photo by
Jon King

On the evening of Wednesday, July 26, Idyllwild hiker and biologist Jon King was descending South Ridge Trail with his colleague Florian Boyd after their shift at Tahquitz Peak fire lookout. They had almost reached the trailhead near the top of South Ridge Road when they came upon these two Southern Pacific rattlesnakes engaged in a very elaborate “dance” in the middle of the trail.

In addition to lots of still photos, King filmed two short videos, now posted on YouTube (search for “Southern Pacific rattlesnake male”).

This very rarely observed behavior initially looks like courtship between a male and female, but is actually a mildly aggressive “combat dance” between two males, the rattlesnake equivalent of rutting in deer or bighorn sheep. There was no rattling or other noise associated with the behavior.

King quickly spotted a third rattlesnake only a few yards away. This may well have been a female observing the “dance.” That snake did eventually rattle, cross the trail and disappear into a nearby rock cavity. Meanwhile, the males continued their spectacular interaction for several minutes.

Incidentally, King had his dog Anabel with him. Despite the potential danger, her rattlesnake avoidance training worked extremely well and she kept her distance throughout. Indeed, she ran many yards away after the presumed female snake rattled. This training is highly recommended for anyone who hikes with their dog in our mountains.