Timber Rattlesnake: Fact, Fiction & Mystery

Our recent timber rattlesnake post generated a larger than anticipated stir, so I’m returning to the alternately awe-inspiring and anxiety inducing Adirondack rattlesnake to clear up a few misunderstandings and to offer up a mystery that you may be able to help solve.

Timber Rattlesnake

Despite its elusive nature, the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is being spotted with increasing frequency in recent years. While this is encouraging and exciting for many outdoor enthusiasts, it is a worrisome trend for others who are concerned for the safety of young children and pets. While I’m no herpotologist, I would like to augment Katie Shepard’s insightful expose on the timber rattlesnakes native to the Split Rock Mountain Wild Forest.

Let’s start out with some data from the DEC’s Timber Rattlesnake Fact Sheet:

Measuring from 3-4.5 feet (91-137 cm) or more in length, the timber rattlesnake is the largest venomous snake in New York. The record length is 74 ½ inches (189 cm). Timber rattlers impress one as being very stocky; they are large snakes. Despite their size, cryptic coloration allows them to be easily concealed. Two color patterns are commonly found: a yellow phase, which has black or dark brown crossbands on a lighter background color of yellow, brown or gray, and a black phase, which has dark crossbands on a dark background. Black or dark brown stippling also occurs to varying degrees, to the extent that some individuals appear all black. Scales are ridged, giving this rattlesnake a rough-skinned appearance. The timber rattler has a broadly triangular head with many small scales on the crown of the head bordered by a few large scales, unlike the massasauga rattlesnake which has nine large scales on the top of the head. Like other members of the pit-viper family, the timber rattlesnake has a temperature-sensitive opening, or pit, on either side of the face between and a little below the eye and nostril. This sensory organ is used to detect prey and potential predators. Another feature distinctive of rattlesnakes is the rattle itself. This structure is made of loosely attached horny segments. A new segment is added each time the snake sheds. When vibrated, the rattle makes a buzzing sound characteristic of a disturbed rattlesnake. (NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation)

Rattlesnakes! (Cochiti Pueblo, NM)

Beware of snakes! (Photo credit: virtualDavis)

So that’s slightly dry and textbook-y, but it offers up a clear and concise explanation of the timber rattlesnakes that are native the the Champlain Valley. And from personal experience, I can vouch for the accuracy of the data.

So what about the “fear factor” associated with rattlesnakes and the danger of rattlesnake bites? Are timber rattlesnakes aggressive, likely to strike hikers if given the opportunity? Are rattlesnake bites deadly for humans?

Rattlesnake Bites

Good fortune prevents me from sharing empirical knowledge about the lethal nature of timber rattlesnake venom, but I can offer firsthand evidence that the snakes are not unnecessarily aggressive. They are wary and reclusive. They would rather escape than strike. Although a pair of timber rattlesnake encounters doesn’t lend me much authority, it seems that my perception is common. Most resources concur that timber rattlesnakes only strike if/when provoked. And common sense should compel anyone happening upon a timber rattlesnake in the wild to avoid provoking it. If the snake is behaving aggressively, coiling and preparing to strike — perhaps even false striking — its defensive behavior indicates that it perceives a threat. Avoid further threatening the snake and withdraw cautiously, slowly. In all likelihood the rattlesnake, no matter how large and menacing, will slither off without striking.

Many people’s fear of timber rattlesnakes is founded on the misconception that they are aggressive and likely to attack unprovoked. From all of the evidence I can find, this is a popular but inaccurate fallacy. Nevertheless, rattlesnake bites are the most common snakebite injuries in North America. And despite the fact that rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal if treated promptly, all precautions should be taken to avoid exposure to the toxic venom.

All rattlesnakes possess a set of fangs with which they inject large quantities of hemotoxic venom. The venom travels through the bloodstream, destroying tissue and causing swelling, internal bleeding, and intense pain. (Wikipedia)

In general, the older and larger the snake (as well as the younger and smaller the victim), the greater the danger. In the event of a rattlesnake bite, immediate medical attention is necessary in order to assess the severity of the snakebite and to administer a Crotaline antivenom (also called “antivenin”). While a medical authority with far greater expertise than my own should be consulted to avoid, anticipate and prepare for rattlesnake poisoning, most emergency response instructions include:

  • Snakebite victim (and all others) should slowly, calmly retreat from rattlesnake.
  • Victim should be calmed and reassured to avoid accelerated heartbeat.
  • Immediately make arrangements to transport victim to medical facility.
  • Eliminate restrictive clothing, etc. from victim and immobilize snakebite.
  • Maintain snakebite below heart level to delay systemic spread of venom.

A notable exception from conventional wisdom for treating rattlesnake bites is that in no case should a tourniquet be applied near the snakebite, and incision/suction should not be attempted to remove venom.

For many years when I lived in the desert Southwest I always hiked with a venom kit which included a razor blade to open the wound (rattlesnake or spider bite) and a suction pump to extract the venom and infected blood/fluids. This is no longer recommended for rattlesnake bits.

Fortunately, medical treatment for rattlesnake bites is generally effective and fatalities are rare.

“In New York there have been no records of human deaths attributable to rattlesnakes in the wild during the last several decades,” DEC says. “Contrary to popular opinion, a rattlesnake will not pursue or attack a person unless threatened or provoked.” (Adirondack Explorer)

So that’s my recap of timber rattlesnake fact and fiction. But I also promised you a rattlesnake mystery. Here it is…

Massassauga rattlesnake

Massassauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus c...

Massassauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On May 15, 2009 I found a large, unfamiliar snake behind our barn. By large I mean 3+ feet long and as thick as my forearm. By unfamiliar I mean exotic coloring and markings — yellowish tan background color with brown-black mottling — unlike any snake I’ve ever seen in the Adirondacks. It disappeared before I could get a camera, and identification was inconclusive despite my detailed description with anyone I could draw into the mystery. But the other day I stumbled upon a photograph of Sistrurus catenatus. A perfect match!

As unlikely as it may seem, I now suspect that I may have spotted a massasauga rattlesnake with markings totally unlike our local Adirondack timber rattlesnakes. (Rosslyn Redux.)

I’d never heard of the Eastern massasauga, and frankly they’re not supposed to live this far east in New York State. But I’ve done some research and I’m feeling more and more confident that what I saw was a newly arrived companion to the Adirondack timber rattlesnake, a distant cousin exotic coloring and an even more exotic name, the massassauga rattlesnake.

Is it possible that we have two rattlesnake varieties in the Adirondacks’ Champlain Valley? Or was this a non-native snake that escaped from captivity or was released by a pet owner who’d grown squeamish with endless mouse sacrifices? I haven’t a clue, but I’m fascinated with the possibility that we may have a more diverse rattlesnake population than conventionally accepted. I’ve explored several other rattlesnake hypotheses (including a fair-skinned timber rattlesnake) on my Rosslyn Redux blog if you’re curious, and I’m hoping to solicit feedback from anyone who may have seen a similar snake. I’m also hoping that naturalists, ecologists, scientists with wisdom to spare can help solve this mystery. What do you think?