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Prelude to a Hiss in the L.A. Foothills

Public display of this rattlesnake ritual is rarely seen. Chance sighting proves the wiles of the wilds.


"I hate nature," my teenage niece once proclaimed. "Seen one tree, you've seen them all."

Hiking on my favorite trail in the Santa Monica Mountains, as I do most weekends, I see more than trees. There are panoramic views of the coastline and the Pacific's changing moods, a varying display of wildflowers, even occasional celebrity sightings--Kate Capshaw, Michael Crichton and Anthony Hopkins, among others, tackle the hilly path a few canyons away from the Getty Museum. A sign at the trail head warns against mountain lions and prohibits dogs, but lizards are plentiful. I've seen snakes slithering out of the grass, and the group of friends with whom I exercise are careful to warn other hikers when a serpent has been spotted.

On a recent Sunday morning, we'd walked for only a few minutes when we suddenly stopped. Two rattlesnakes blocked our way. By detouring slightly, we could have passed them, but in the time it took us to debate a strategy, (better to sneak slowly or whiz by?) we became entranced. The snakes were engaged in some sort of ritual. We quickly sensed we were witnessing something extraordinary, a spectacle none of us had ever encountered.

The snakes, each about 3 feet long, rose up, perpendicular to the ground. With a foot between them, they held their position, then, as if on cue, pulled farther back, where they remained immobile for a beat. Then they slammed together. They wriggled on the ground, wrestling in the dust, then disengaged. Once again, they faced each other, their linear bodies extended straight up. Separately, but as precisely as synchronized swimmers, they carved a slalom pattern in the air. Advancing and retreating, a crescendo of activity followed by a period of rest, the serpentine ballet was so exquisitely choreographed that "Bolero" might have been playing.

As we watched, we assigned meaning to the snakes' darts and feints. We crafted a narrative. The broader snake was a male. The other, a female. They were mating, we decided. The sensuality of their instinctual movements, the way they teased each other and collided with what seemed to be passion wasn't that different from human sexuality. How interesting, we thought, that this simpler species flirted, that they were as playful and seductive as if they were a man and a woman in Eden.

Interesting, but wrong. "What you saw was a combat dance," Russ Smith, curator of reptiles at the Los Angeles Zoo, tells me. "It was two males in a territorial spat, or they were struggling to decide who would get to breed a female in the area. In most cases, it's a prelude to mating. It's a competition thing in which the stronger male wins out. The weaker one isn't hurt, other than his pride."

Smith assures me that the combat dance is much more dramatic than reptiles copulating. "Consider yourself lucky," he says. "I've been hiking in this area for years, and I've never seen it out in the wild. We know it happens, and we've all seen photographs of it. I've seen reptiles mating outside the zoo, but I've never run across a combat dance."

People pay thousands of dollars and travel great distances to go on safari to observe exotic animals in their native habitat. Close to home, in a city known more for its urban sophistication than its natural wonders, we lucked into a Discovery Channel dream. Fault us for having sex on the brain, for being so narcissistic that we likened animal behavior to that of amorous humans. But before we began to analyze and misinterpret, we watched in silence, knowing we were in the presence of something rare and beautiful.

There is no way to estimate the number of rattlesnakes in the foothills around Los Angeles, but it's a sure bet that any found in this area are of the family Crotalidae. "People say they've seen diamondbacks in Los Angeles, but that's impossible," Smith says. "All we find around here are southern Pacific rattlers."

The combat dance of the Crotalus viridis helleri, or southern Pacific rattlesnake, can last half an hour, till one of the warriors tires and slinks away. We lingered for at least 10 minutes, alerting advancing hikers of what lay ahead. Most were too afraid to look, an unfortunate and unwarranted reaction, according to the reptile expert.

"Rattlesnakes aren't aggressors," Smith says. "There are about 17 fatalities from rattlesnake bites in the U.S. each year, but most of the people who are bitten are trying to catch or kill the snakes. A large percentage are young men between 18 and 25, and when the incidents are investigated, it's found there's often alcohol involved. How badly someone is poisoned will depend on the size of the snake. The majority of adults will survive a rattlesnake bite without much problem. The situation is more serious with children. The main thing is to get medical attention as quickly as possible."

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