Timber Rattlesnake

Timber Rattlesnake by Trisha M. Shears (public domain)

CLICK TO PLAY RATTLE SOUND (MP3) The rattle of a rattlesnake- US Fish and Wildlife (public domain)

The timber rattlesnake is a pit viper, so named because of two heat-sensing pits located between the eyes and nostrils. Timber rattlesnakes are venomous. They are stocky snakes with brown, tan, gray, dark gray, or yellowish bodies with darker V-shaped bands along their length. Their bellies are yellow. Their heads are much wider than their necks and have a triangular shape. Unlike the eyes of the non-venomous snakes in Connecticut, a rattlesnake's eyes have vertical pupils. Rattlesnakes also have 2 openings on each side of their head in contrast to the 1 opening present in Connecticut's non-venomous snakes.

A rattlesnake's most well-known feature is the rattle on the tip of its tail. Rattlesnakes are born with one rattle button. Each time the skin is shed, another rattle segment can be added. However, the segments on the tip can break off so the number of rattle segments is not a measure of a rattlesnake's age. The rattle is often vibrated when the snake is alarmed as a warning. Many other non-venomous snakes will vibrate their tail tips in warning and make a buzzing sound or a rustling sound in dry leaves. They usually hold their tail tips low to the ground. A rattler will hold its tail high when rattling. Click the link under the photo to hear the sound of a rattlesnake rattle.

Timber rattlesnakes can be 36 to 54 inches long.

There are several rattlesnake subspecies with ranges through different areas of the US. The range of the timber rattlesnake is generally from extreme southwestern Maine south to northern Florida, west into southeastern Minnesota and central Texas. In Connecticut timber rattlesnakes only live in the extreme northwestern corner of the state and in a small area in central Connecticut. Their population is in decline and they are an Endangered species here. It is illegal to persecute or collect them.

Timber rattlesnake habitat consists of forest with rocky outcroppings and dry rocky ridges. They need large sections of uninterrupted forest to do well.

Mating season occurs primarily in May in New England. Females will bear 5 to 17 live young, usually in September. She often returns to her hibernation den to do so. The baby snakes are born in membrane sacs and use a special "egg tooth" to cut their way out. The young are not cared for by their mother, but observers have noted that the young seem to congregate around their mother for a time after they are born. They are about 8 to 10 inches long, have fangs and venom, and possess one rattle button from the start.

Females breed every 3 to 4 years.

These rattlesnakes are more likely to be out basking during the day in spring and fall. Snakes cannot regulate their body temperature internally and must warm themselves in the sun. Over the warmer months they are more nocturnal. They hibernate in the winter from about late September or October to about mid April. Dens in rock crevices or old burrows are generally used, and rattlesnakes often den communally. They can share winter dens with other rattlesnakes or with other snake species. They will often use the same den for years.

Timber rattlesnakes eat mice and other small mammals. They hunt by lying motionless in ambush for their prey. They locate prey by sight, smell and can sense body heat with their sensory pits. When prey animals come near, the snake strikes.

Rattlesnakes have fangs for delivering venom. These are hunting tools and their design is fascinating. The two fangs are attached to the upper jaw and fold back aginst the roof of the mouth in sheaths. Each fang has a duct that is connected to one of the snake's venom glands in the gum. When the snake strikes prey, the fangs move forward and out and puncture the animal. Muscles force venom out of the gland, through the fang and into the prey. Periodically fangs are shed and replaced with new ones that have developed in the gum behind the preceeding fang.

The venom kills the small animals these snakes eat very quickly. After striking, the snake tracks the animal by heat and scent until it has been overcome by the poison and the snake can swallow their meal whole.

Timber rattlesnakes have a very menacing reputation. In reality they are shy in the wild and want only to avoid contact with people, as we are large and frightening from a rattlesnake's perspective. They will usually try to slither away. A rattlesnake will bite in self-defense if surprised, threatened or handled. They will sometimes, but not always, rattle a warn-off when they feel threatened. A timber rattlesnake is able to deliver enough poison to kill a human being. Keep in mind that bites are rare. An article on the Connecticut DEP website reports that there were only 6 recorded rattlesnake bites in Connecticut from the period of about 1950 to 2004. An estimated 25% of defensive bites are dry, meaning no poison is delivered, and often only a fraction of the potential venom is delivered when they are "wet". If they should occur, rattlesnake bites are dangerous. Rapid medical treatment is necessary.

To avoid trouble, don't bother or approach snakes, watch where you step, and if you see a rattlesnake, move away slowly. If you have startled a rattlesnake and it is in a defensive posture and rattling, the best thing to do is to move away very slowly. Snake vision is designed to be most sensitive to quick movements.

The current recommendations for snakebite first aid from the Center for Disease Control are as follows: First, after moving away from the snake, get medical help for the victim as soon as possible. This is something for which 911 should be called. Keep the bitten person calm and quiet. Have them lay down or sit down with the bitten area lower than the heart if possible. Wash the bite with soap and water and cover with a clean dressing. Do not pursue the snake and try to catch it. Do not apply a tourniquet or cut the puncture wounds with a knife. Do not attempt to suck out venom. Do not immerse the wound in water or use ice. Do not let the victim drink alcohol or caffeine.

The non-venomous eastern hog-nosed snake is often mistaken for a rattlesnake.