On Friday, April 25, I attended Joe Racette’s lecture “Timber Rattlesnakes in Folklore and Fact” at Whallonsburg Grange Hall along with over fifty other attendees eager to learn more about this local snake. Racette is the New York State Wildlife Action Plan Coordinator for the Department of Environmental Conservation.
As the event promoted we learned about how:
The Timber Rattlesnake has long been feared and despised by many people. But scientific studies have shown them to be a complex animal; both predator and prey, solitary and social, and slow to reproduce but fast when striking. Learn more about this fascinating creature found at Split Rock Mountain among other places in New York, from the past when it was worth a $5 bounty through the modern era of legal protection.
History of Timber Rattlesnakes
Racette began the lecture by telling the audience a bit about the mythological history of the Timber Rattlesnake—including its inclusion on the “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden Flag and the “Join or Die” rattlesnake cartoon and the serpent’s symbolic importance in medicine. Though after that brief section he moved on to what he jokingly told us he felt more comfortable with and that was the biological and “fact” aspect of his presentation.
The first mention of Timber Rattlesnakes in the North American colonies was published in 1656. Many early publications of the 1700s and 1800s imply very large populations of the snakes. However those mentions are often listing the hundreds or thousands of snakes killed—because they were seen as a danger, nuisance, or were harvested for other reasons. By the early 1900s reports began to mention the declining population of the snakes across New York State.
The bounty later placed on Timber Rattlesnakes also contributed to its decline in the state—however this did backfire on New York in two ways. Snake hunters seeking a bounty would travel outside of New York to find and bring back the bodies of snakes from wherever they could find them, so the state was wasting money paying for snakes that were never in NY. Also, in some New York areas townspeople would actually protect the rattlesnakes and treat them similarly to livestock that they needed to carefully manage. They wanted that $5 bounty to be available when they needed it and to always have a supply of snakes ready to harvest. This inadvertently helped preserve the species at a time when the state was attempting to eradicate them.
Where Are Timber Rattlesnakes Today?
Timber Rattlesnakes live in three types of dens, only two of which are available for them in New York: a talus slope, which is a slope covered in rocky debris, or in the crevice/ledge of a rock outcropping.
It is estimated that there are only 143 den sites in New York. Only 10 of these are classified as “robust” populations—meaning containing at least 300 adult snakes—the Split Rock Mountain site being one of them.
Timber Rattlesnakes have a yellow or black morph and sometimes a few other colorations are observed in the species. All of the snakes at Split Rock are of the black variety. It’s theorized that this is so because in the colder climates this far north the black color helps the snakes attract more heat from the sun.
Female rattlesnakes are known to travel at most 3.2 miles from their den, while males may travel at a stretch up to 5 miles away. This reliance upon proximity to the den makes it imperative that the snakes are not picked up by humans and released miles away from where they were caught—the snake will not make a new home but will search for its den until it finds it or dies.
Visit the NYDEC website to see the distribution of the snakes throughout the United States.
A Timber Rattlesnake’s Life
We don’t know much about socialization or intelligence about this species because they are reclusive and a lack of limbs and ability for expression makes it difficult for humans to understand and interpret them. However, they do have the ability to navigate mazes which suggests some intelligence. As for socialization, the importance of the den is known, but how/if they create bonds/relationships to each other is unknown. Sometimes the phenomenon of two “sister snakes” (two females always in each other’s presence) can be observed over long periods of time. We don’t yet know why they do this.
Males reach sexual maturity at age 5 and females at age 7. A female will average a litter of about 9 every 2 years. When they are born the snakes are referred to as “neonates” for the first two weeks, and then are called “young of year” until they reach one year of life. The snakes then become known as “juveniles” until age 3 when they are finally at the “adult” stage. The number of rings on their rattle determines how old a Timber Rattlesnake is, however the rattle can break so it is not always accurate. The oldest known of this species was 46-years-old.
Timber Rattlesnakes hibernate from October until April. Mating season lasts about one month, and the males are known to fight over a female (by rising up and attempting to push each other down). During gestation a female will not eat and will barely move from one spot except to sun itself. This is a dangerous time for the snakes because they are easier for poachers to find and capture.
Timber Rattlesnakes: A Threatened Species in NY
Timber Rattlesnakes are listed as a “threatened species” by the NYDEC. Racette named the three biggest conservation threats to Timber Rattlesnakes:
- Loss of habitat
- Illegal Collection
- Snake Fungal Disease (This is a recent disease that is spreading, and more study must be done to determine how big of a threat it is. However comparisons to the recent outbreak of white-nose syndrome that decimated the bat populations of the Northeast is not a good sign.)
While conservationists study and encourage this species to thrive it is often tough to do so. Racette told us one method that was attempted to help increase survival rate:
The first few weeks of life are a trial for young animals to survive. Often when a species is struggling a program called “headstarting” is attempted to help improve their odds. “Headstarting” involves capturing a pregnant snake and raising her and the young for their first two weeks of life and then setting them free back in the wild. Despite success with other species, “headstarting” has proven to be a failure with Timber Rattlesnakes. When monitoring that captured litter and several other litters born in the wild, it was found that the snakes who had not been born in captivity did significantly better and lived longer. That means that something learned in the wild in a Timber Rattlesnake’s first two weeks of life is essential to their survival—though what that is we don’t know.
While I applaud conservation efforts and find learning about this snake a fascinating subject, I have no desire to encounter this snake in the wild.
Remember that Timber Rattlesnakes are venomous, and if you are bitten you should seek immediate medical attention. However, Racette tells us that it is more likely to be stuck by lightning than to be bitten, and those that are bitten are usually harassing or attempting to capture the snake that bites them. So if you come across a Timber Rattlesnake leave it alone.
If you want to learn more about our local Timber Rattlesnakes, then Racette recommends the book Timber Rattlesnakes in Vermont & New York: Biology, History, and the Fate of an Endangered Species.
- Snakes at Split Rock (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Rattlesnakes, Rumbling, and Rock (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Timber Rattlesnakes Control the Spread of Lyme Disease (scienceworldreport.com)
- Fish & Wildlife works to recover Vermont’s timber rattlesnakes (vtdigger.org)
- Timber Rattlesnake: Fact, Fiction & Mystery (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Timber Rattlesnake Safari (www.essexonlakechamplain.com)