A large rattlesnake poses for the camera in Central California. Credit: Courtesy of Emily Taylor

In the peak of rattlesnake season, Cal Poly undergraduates are working towards altering the media portrayals of deadly rattlesnakes through Project RattleCam, a community science website used to analyze rattlesnake social behavior. 

Project RattleCam launched two years ago and is led by biological sciences professor Emily Taylor, who has studied rattlesnakes for more than 25 years and takes an interest in the biological aspect of rattlesnakes and reversing the stigma placed on them. 

“Rattlesnakes are so unfairly portrayed on TV, they make it look like the rattlesnakes want to bite you, they’re always rattling and striking — they’re not, they only [strike or rattle] when they’ve been provoked,” Taylor said. “We’re trying to fight back at that and provide rattlesnake public relations and show people what rattlesnakes actually do when you leave them alone which is some pretty cool stuff.”

For the rattlesnakes in California, undergraduate students have the opportunity to research and work on the live stream camera over the summer. 

Biology sophomore Zooey Sandel was chosen to be a part of the Frost Undergraduate Research Program, funded by Cal Poly alumnus William Frost and Linda Frost to aid students in the College of Science and Mathematics. Sandel will control the camera in California over the summer.

“We’re not just trying to research the rattlesnakes themselves but part of the goal is to change people’s minds about rattlesnakes and a sort of conservation goal as well,” Sandel said.

The live stream camera on the Central Coast is set up to protect the rattlesnakes and is wrapped in light camouflage tape to fit in with its surroundings. Credit: Courtesy of Emily Taylor

Project RattleCam would not have been possible without the help of non-scientists. The complete website is based on major community science website Zooniverse, where people-powered research allowed Project RattleCam to analyze 60,000 photos of rattlesnakes in less than six months with the help of 6,000 volunteers.

“It’s really a collaboration between citizen scientists and academic scientists like me for both of our mutual benefit. They’re helping me do science and I’m helping show them participate in science even if it’s not their vocation,” Taylor said. “We will be continuing our community science efforts with our livestream camera in future years.” 

Project RattleCam currently has a camera live-streaming a small den of rattlesnakes on the Central Coast. The program’s goal is to set up another live stream camera in Colorado to observe a mega den of rattlesnakes. 

The den in Colorado houses about 2,000 rattlesnakes gathered in a space the size of half a tennis court. The rattlesnakes hibernate underground in the winter, then reappear in May to bask in the sun. A time lapse camera is currently set up on the site in Colorado while Taylor and her team are testing live streaming technology at the local den of rattlesnakes.

“This wonderful opportunity is logistically extremely challenging to put the live-streaming camera [in Colorado], which is why we put the easy time lapse one to start,” Taylor said.

Taylor hopes that a year from now, people will tune in and check on the rattlesnakes in the massive den in Colorado to see how they behave and interact with one another. 

Project RattleCam will live-stream the rattlesnake den in California on a large screen television in the first floor lobby of the Baker Science building (180) between July and October. Their YouTube channel will also stream the rattlesnakes for people to watch from their homes. Next summer, the live-stream will possibly be of the large congregation of rattlesnakes in Colorado.

“It’s been really awesome to be a part of this, and hopefully do more going forward,” Sandel said.