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Maybe predators are wary of rattles and don't step on the snake. Or maybe the rattle diverts attention from the snake's head.
The point of a rattle, as I understand it, is that it's metabolically expensive, and time consuming, to produce poison. A snake that can chase off a dozen threats a day by wagging its tail is much better off probability-of-producing-offspring-wise than one that can only bite and poison three threats before being left defenseless for a few days.
It does leave me wondering what benefits the intermediate mutations provide though, since going from a normal snake tail to a rattle seems like it would take more than one step.
I have observed that more ordinary snakes that have not developed a rattle often vibrate their tail in a similar manner, which often makes a warning buzz that is merely somewhat quieter than a rattlesnake's rattle. So incremental improvements to this rattling mechanism, which started with a regular tail, would just slowly increase the loudness, and thus warning ability, of a snake's tail.
Alternatively, maybe the buzz attracts attention away from the head of the snake, making it easier to attack.
Yes, and it would sustain less critical damage. I'm sure that both benefits contribute to the preservation of tail-rattling traits.
All of these sound like a posteriori justifications than a priori predictions. Good ones. But still.
That's kind of the point of this article. Evolution doesn't "choose" something, it just has changes happen, and if, like a rattle happening to scare off threats or reduce lethal damage, it aids survival, then it increases in the population.
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