Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Timber Rattlesnake

It's getting cooler and the days are getting shorter at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest. Snakes of all species, including the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) are looking for mates and possible winter den sites.
According to Davidson Herpetology, “The timber rattler is one of the species of snakes typically used by religions that practice snake handling. Most timber rattlers are reluctant to rattle or bite, and instead, rely on their excellent camouflage for protection.” Notice how the dark patter on the snake matches the shadows on the forest floor, while the light colors match dead leaves and the orange stripe matches the fallen pine needles. Watch your step! Fortunately, although reaching large sizes, most individuals are docile when encountered in the wild and often will remain coiled or stretched out without moving. If threatened, they can deliver a venomous bite. However, the majority of documented bites have occurred when individuals were trying to pick up the reptiles.

The average size of Timber Rattlesnakes is four feet with males, up to six feet long, getting larger than females. All have solid black tails and black chevrons on the back and sides with the point of the (V) directed toward the head. Often a brown or orange stripe is present running down the middle of the back.

The Timber Rattlesnake populations require suitable winter denning sites in order to thrive. Therefore, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation are the main threats facing this species. Timber Rattlesnakes are known to den communally and will return to the same den year after year in order to hibernate through the winter. Not only is the loss of suitable den sites critical to the Timber Rattlesnake population, but the communal denning behavior makes the species vulnerable to persecution (killed or collected) by humans. Several of the tree stumps outside our office windows have been used over the years by Timber Rattlesnakes as well as other snake species.

Females reach maturity after at least 5 years and typically wait at least 2 or 4 years between litters. The live young (5–20 per litter) are born in late summer or early fall around the same time that courtship and mating occur. Timber Rattlesnakes may live 20 years or more eating mostly rodents, which include mice, rats, and squirrels. The snakes rely heavily on their sense of smell to detect their prey. They spend the majority of their time (day and night) remaining motionless in coiled, ambush positions along animal runways awaiting the approach of unwary prey.

Beyond humans and their activities, Eastern Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula getula) are the only predator with which adult Timber Rattlesnakes apparently need to concern themselves.

Images by Mark Musselman

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