Expanding Rattlesnake Cam Project Contributes to Science Education, Public Perception
By Nick Wilson
Through an expanding program involving unobtrusive, live stream surveillance of rattlesnakes in their natural habitats, Cal Poly biological sciences Professor Emily Taylor hopes to improve public understanding of a type of snake frequently associated with danger and fear — and sometimes tortured or killed by those feeling threatened.
Between July and October, Project Rattlecam offers publicly accessible livestream video on its YouTube channel of rattlesnakes at an undisclosed Central Coast site.
In 2024, the project will broadcast publicly for the first time from a northern Colorado rookery where up to 2,000 rattlesnakes congregate to socialize and raise babies. Taylor has visited the site to study the community of snakes there, along with student researchers.
Already, Project Rattlecam has captured thousands of time-lapse photos to document snake behaviors that can be analyzed in the scientific community through a shared platform called Zooniverse.
“It has been amazing,” Taylor said. “We watch the snakes drinking water off their backs, which is adorable. We’ve seen predators snatch up baby snakes. Magpies take babies and smash them against the rocks. It’s a fascinating look at nature in action without the disruption of human proximity, which would affect how the snakes behave.”
Biological Sciences Professor Emily Taylor
For a peek at the activity, Project Rattlecam offers anyone from elementary students to interested members of the public the chance to observe the creatures from the safety of their homes, office or school classroom.
“What we’re trying to do is to show that what snakes do on their own can be pretty cool,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to poke them or needle them to watch them react like some sensationalist TV shows do. We’ve observed things like watching a baby snake cozy up to its mother and yawn.”
Outside of her Cal Poly-based work, Taylor runs Central Coast Snake Services that includes safely relocating rattlesnakes from people’s back yards for free and installing fencing to help protect residents from any potential snake presence on private property.
In general, Taylor said that snakes are docile unless bothered or attacked, and the live stream YouTube channel offers “good snake public relations” while giving students and the scientific community a unique opportunity to study them.
“This monitoring offers great research opportunities for students learning about the snakes because the technicians did such a great job to set up the cameras so that the snakes don’t notice them,” Taylor said. “We can pan out or in and move the perspective from side to side.”
As part of another initiative, Taylor’s honors class, Team Rattlesnake Rebrand, is helping to coordinate a national effort to bring awareness to an abusive practice at an annual Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, TX event where rattlesnakes are annually tortured and killed.
They provide educational materials and lessons plans to teachers, parents and scout leaders to inform them about the harm being done and encourage them to help their children write letters to the residents of the community.
Separately, as part of a recent survey, designed to gauge people’s perception toward snakes, Taylor’s research team asked 1,600 people about their perceptions of two videos concerning rattlesnakes.
“We study the snakes, and we study the way that people think about them by actually using science skills to collect data,” Taylor said.
One of the videos presented to survey participants highlighted positive environmental influences of rattlesnakes, including their role in controlling rodent populations and reducing the spread of disease.
A second video showed study participants a mother’s care of her babies, showcasing the endearing bond of parenting.
“We had the respondents take an initial survey on their perception of rattlesnakes and then they took a second survey after watching the educational videos,” Taylor said.
Taylor said that overall results showed that the first video on positive ecological impacts made people more empathetic toward rattlesnakes.
Notably, women reacted more favorably to rattlesnakes after learning about mothering behaviors, Taylor said.
“Both videos were effective and differed based on demographics,” Taylor said. “I learned a little bit more about how better to talk to people when I’m talking about rattlesnakes.”