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Snakes on a plain: Post-drought serpents are fat, happy, and making babies

For about five years, Southern California's drought-afflicted snakes have been looking a bit lean.  

"If you were finding snakes three, four years ago, the body condition of those snakes was really poor," says Greg Pauly, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. "You might see a snake that's three feet long but incredibly underweight because they just weren't eating very much," he says.

Pauly says skinny snakes are a byproduct of our five-year-long drought. The water shortage rippled through the animal kingdom, hitting our resident snakes hard. 

Consider the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake — one of SoCal's most common snakes.

As water became scarce, so too did their favorite nosh: small lizards, and little mammals.

"These female snakes didn't have the energy reserves to produce a clutch of young," Pauly says. "They just have not been reproducing for several years."

Rattlesnakes weren't the only ones forced to tighten their little belts. Their less-lethal neighbors faced hardship too: gopher snakes, striped racers, California Kingsnakes. 

Pauly says that it's not clear whether the drought caused snakes to stop trying to make babies entirely, whether female snakes couldn't sustain gestation or both. 

The prospect of fewer snakes might be enough to make some amateur hikers (and rodents) cheer — but don't celebrate just yet. The drought was declared officially over in April, and Pauly says things could turn around soon.

"You look at snakes right now after this excellent winter and spring, and they are just looking fat and happy," he says. "I think we'll start to see some really good reproduction this year. Late summer, early fall, we'll start to see baby snakes cruising around the landscape."

Going into the next few months, the reptile expert has some tips for your next hike — especially in the hills of Santa Monica or the San Gabriels:

"If you're out and you're wandering around, be listening, Pauly says. Rattlesnakes are very polite snakes. If you're too close, they'll let you know by giving a rattle."

Protip from Pauly: Snakes don't chase people.

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