By Cheryl Shull, Cohort V
During a recent fishing trip at Elkhorn Lake, my husband and I observed what we believed to be a brown water snake swimming towards us. As I began shooting photos, we quickly realized that we had a timber rattlesnake in our midst. We enjoyed the afternoon watching the snake quietly resting his head on a rock watching us watching him. Eventually he slithered on his way in the opposite direction. This being the closest encounter that I have had with a rattlesnake, I was interested in learning more about the species.
The timber rattlesnake, also known as canebrake or banded rattlesnake, is a species of venomous pit viper that is found in the eastern region of the United States. Generally, this species is found in deciduous forests in rugged terrain but can be found in many types of rural habitats. The timber rattlesnake has a brown or yellowish to a grayish body, but some individuals are very dark, almost a solid black. It has a wide head and narrow neck and is a large, heavy-bodied snake with the characteristic rattle on the end of the tail. Adult snakes range from 30-60 inches in length and can weigh on average between 1.1 and 3.3 lb but can be much heavier. When they feel threatened or are harassed they will vibrate their tail causing the loosely connected segments to make the distinct rattling sound. Their lifespan may be anywhere from 16 to 22 years in the wild.
During the summer, gravid (pregnant) females seem to prefer open, rocky ledges where the temperatures are higher, while males and nongravid females tend to spend more time in cooler, denser woodland with more closed forest canopy. Females give live birth to 5 – 20 babies every two to three years. The young snakes may remain near their mother for a period of 7 to 10 days after birth, but no parental care is provided by the female. The juvenile timber rattlesnakes are born fully venomous, however, they don’t have the amount of venom that a full sized adult snake does.
Timber rattlesnakes eat mainly small mammals, but their diet may also include small birds, frogs, mice, other small animals or even other snakes. The timber rattlesnake is the 3rd largest venomous snake in the US and is one of North America’s most dangerous snakes, due to its impressive size, long fangs and high venom yield. However, the species relatively mild disposition and a long hibernation period mean there aren’t that many bites.
Due to their wide distribution and presumed large population numbers, the timber rattlesnake is not considered to be a threatened species. However, the population has been steadily decreasing over their historic range, mainly due to habitat destruction and other human activities.
There was a time when a simple picture of a snake would send me into hysterics. Then one day my young daughter’s fascination with a corn snake at a children’s museum led me to do some serious soul searching. It took time and effort, but I’ve come to admire and respect these shy creatures and now enjoy photographing them whenever I get the chance. Education is paramount to ensuring all snakes get the recognition and protection that they deserve.
Photos by Cheryl Shull
More on Timber Rattlesnakes from the Virginia Herpetological Society here.
VA Tech graduate student David Garst on the Timber Rattlesnake in Virginia: