Male snakes practically killing themselves for sex, study finds

SYDNEY — “G’day mate” may be a commonly known greeting among Australians, but a new study out of the University of Sydney finds it’s quite applicable to snakes, too. Researchers say male snakes are mating so much, they’re actually killing themselves in the process.

The team of co-authors — comprised of scientists from Australia, America, and Sweden — studied North American red-sided garter snakes and discovered males are actually dying earlier and found in poorer health than females because they’re frantically partaking in constant mating for up to four weeks.

Mating garter snakes
A new study finds that male red-sided garter snakes use so much time and energy for mating, they’re living shorter lives as a result.

Red-sided garter snakes take on an orgy-like atmosphere when they mate. After hibernating for eight months, females release pheromones that results in them being ravaged by throngs of eager males in a cave or den. Multiple males wrap themselves around the females, twisting themselves into balls and roll around furiously until one of the lucky boys is able to land his prize. Once completed, the ones who lost the battle unwind themselves and move on.

In the process, they’re not eating and using all their energy for the sexual battle instead of healthy hygiene habits. The lack of attention to health is causing the snakes to age faster than females and leaving them with significant cellular damage.

“The relationship between body condition and age differed strikingly between sexes, with females maintaining their body condition with age, while condition decreased with age in males,” the paper explains.

The team reached their conclusion by measuring telomeres, the biomarker of aging in both male and female snakes that protects chromosomes from deteriorating. Females are believed to live longer and show better conditioning because males are spending weeks at the den looking for other females and competing with other males. The females, conversely, stick around for as little as one day, showing an actual interest in personal health and taking care of themselves as they age.

“Although we believe that all females mate every year, they only stay at the den sites (where mating takes place) for a short period of one- to three days; much less than males, who remain at least a week and up to 21 days,” says senior author Dr. Christopher R Friesen in a university news release.

Friesen points out that because males only have four months in a year to breed, feed, and have babies, they’re prioritizing the time for mating.

“Females reproduce every other year, which depends on their stored fat/energy reserves. Our previous research has shown that females can store sperm for up to 15 months or more before she uses the sperm to fertilize her eggs!” he says.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings B.