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Groundbreaking Research Shows Rattlesnakes Are Important 'Ecosystem Engineers'

A speckled rattlesnake found in Maricopa County.
Bryan Hughes/Rattlesnake Solutions
A speckled rattlesnake found in Maricopa County.

New research shows there’s one unexpected animal that has a very important role by spreading seeds in its ecosystem. They make a sound that strikes fear into many an Arizonan.

But rattlesnakes, like any predator, play a crucial part in a healthy ecosystem. And one way they do, according to a paper published by the Royal Society, is through seed dispersal.

“Rattlesnakes should be viewed as more than just predators," said Gordon Schuett, paper co-author. "They’re actually functioning and providing ecosystem services beyond that, so beyond just the seed thing, they’re taking on the role of ecosystem engineer.”

The research shows different types of rattlesnakes found in Arizona munch on rodents, many of which still have seeds in their cheeks or gut. Then, the seeds stay whole because snakes do not chew.

The seeds can even germinate while in a snake’s colon, because they don't have the enzymes to break that particular food down. The slithering creatures can travel8-10 miles before the seeds pass through their digestive system. 

Ultimately, the authors say, this paper is the first to point out rattlesnakes as important seed dispersers.

Schuett says he and his colleagues came to a conclusion that other scientists hadn’t yet discovered.

“They were not connecting the dots and we connected them," Schuett said. "It was to our benefit that it worked out. We just made a connection that other people hadn’t."

Schuett said the potential role of vipers as important seed dispersers, were, before this paper, unrecognized and mostly unexplored.

The paper's researchers studied the insides of preserved, museum specimens of snakes. The research suggests other scientists pick up on this work to do more, empirical studies in the field. Schuett said they've gotten many letters after the paper was published earlier this year of people who want to look more into the idea of rattlesnakes, or any snakes, acting as seed dispersers.

Casey Kuhn reports from KJZZ’s West Valley Bureau. She comes to Phoenix from the Midwest, where she graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.Kuhn got her start in radio reporting in college at the community public radio station, WFHB. She volunteered there as a reporter and worked her way up to host the half-hour, daily news show. After graduating, she became a multimedia reporter at Bloomington's NPR/PBS station WFIU/WTIU, where she reported for and produced a weekly statewide news television show.Since moving to the Southwest, she’s discovered a passion for reporting on rural issues, agriculture and the diverse people who make up her community.Kuhn was born and raised in Cincinnati, where her parents instilled in her a love of baseball, dogs and good German beer. You’ll most likely find her around the Valley with a glass of prosecco in one hand and a graphic novel in the other.She finds the most compelling stories come from KJZZ’s listeners.