Social snakes?: non-random association patterns detected in a population of Arizona black rattlesnakes (Crotalus cerberus)
Social structure affects many aspects of ecology including mating systems, dispersal, and movements. The quality and pattern of associations among individuals can define social structure, thus detailed behavioral observations are vital to understanding species social structure and many other aspects of their ecology. In squamate reptiles (lizards and snakes), detailed observations of associations among individuals have been primarily limited to several lineages of lizards and have revealed a variety of social structures, including polygynous family group-living and monogamous pair-living. Here I describe the social structure of two communities within a population of Arizona black rattlesnakes (Crotalus cerberus) using association indices and social network analysis. I used remote timelapse cameras to semi-continuously sample rattlesnake behavior at communal basking sites during early April through mid-May in 2011 and 2012. I calculated an association index for each dyad (proportion of time they spent together) and used these indices to construct a weighted, undirected social network for each community. I found that individual C. cerberus vary in their tendency to form associations and are selective about with whom they associate. Some individuals preferred to be alone or in small groups while others preferred to be in large groups. Overall, rattlesnakes exhibited non-random association patterns, and this result was mainly driven by association selection of adults. Adults had greater association strengths and were more likely to have limited and selected associates. I identified eight subgroups within the two communities (five in one, three in the other), all of which contained adults and juveniles. My study is the first to show selected associations among individual snakes, but to my knowledge it is also the first to use association indices and social network analysis to examine association patterns among snakes. When these methods are applied to other snake species that aggregate, I anticipate the `discovery' of similar social structures.