Monday, July 27, 2015

Timber Rattlesnake!

Rattlesnakes. For many Ohioans, those are something of the desert or the the deep South. Snakes of mythic-proportions that most know only from TV, a book, or tall tales from friends. Many Ohioans from the glaciated western portion of the state are surprised to learn that Ohio does indeed have rattlesnakes, and not just one species, but two. On the other hand, those from the unglaciated southern portions of the state have probably all heard of the Timber Rattlersnake, the species this post is about. Sadly, this species is highly-hated and often-victimized, although it has a mild disposition and poses no threat to the average person. The Timber Rattlesnake is a much-maligned snake, and thoughtless killings coupled with habitat destruction have decimated the population here in Ohio, making for a rocky future. With this post, I hope to educate people about the Timber Rattler, disprove some myths, and hopefully bring about more acceptance of this amazing reptile.

Timber Rattlesnake Road Cruising
The Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus, is one of Ohio's three venomous snake species. It is the second most common, with the Copperhead being the most common, and the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake being the rarest. Although many people think we also have Water Moccasins (also known as Cottonmouths) in Ohio, they are found nowhere in Ohio. 

The current range of the Timber Rattlesnake in Ohio. Map courtesy of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. 
The Timber Rattlesnake is listed as State-Endangered in Ohio and is incredibly rare across its entire range here in the state. Historically, they used to be found in at least 24 counties across southern Ohio and also on the Lake Erie Islands. They are currently only found in 8 counties in Ohio (Adams, Scioto, Pike, Jackson, Ross, Vinton, Hocking, Athens), although only 2 of the counties have populations large enough to be self-sustaining. If you visit one of these counties, your chances of seeing one are next to nonexistent. I was lucky enough to see not only one, but two in the past week. Both were at known locales, but due to the rarity of this species I cannot share where. One I found while hiking and wasn't able to get photos of, but I found another while road-cruising backcountry roads at night. That one allowed for photos!

Timber Rattlesnake Ohio
Nothing gets your blood pumping quite like driving down a lonely gravel road in the dark and seeing a big Timber Rattlesnake lying in the road. For many people, fear would be the primary emotion. For me, it was pure excitement. I had been on a quest to see a venomous snake in Ohio for the entire year, and the past week had been a whirlwind with my lifer Copperhead and 2 Timber Rattlesnakes. Many of the photos on this post are closeups, but rest assured, these photos were all taken from a safe distance with a telephoto lens.

The photo above shows the "business end" of a Timber Rattlesnake. All three venomous snakes in Ohio are pit vipers (subfamily Crotalinae). The main characteristic of the pit vipers are loreal pits, a deep depression with an infrared detecting organ. You can see this pit in the photo above; look for the light-colored circle to the lower right of the eye. This organ helps detect small animals much like heat-sensing goggles. And of course like all rattlesnakes, this is a venomous species. Timber Rattlesnake bites are a very serious event, and can be fatal. Luckily bites are rare. Timber Rattlesnakes have a very mild disposition; they will often only attempt to bite as a last resort. It takes serious provoking to get one of these to try and bite, and a person should never put themselves in a situation where they are provoking a rattlesnake. Animals in general do not like to bite or attack. Most will only do so as a last resort if they fear for their lives. Think about it: by attacking, they are exposing themselves to possible injury or death. It's much safer to simply run away. Unless you're stepping on one, poking, or something similar, a Timber Rattlesnake will often just slither away from you. Regardless, you should stay at least 5 feet away from one if you do stumble across one.

Timber Rattlesnake Ohio
Pictured above is the famous rattle. If you want to hear one in action, click this link for a video I took of one rattling. The rattle most likely evolved to warn possible predators of the danger they would be in if they took on the rattlesnake. Regardless of how it first evolved, it definitely serves now as a warning to animals which might pose a threat. When I found my first Timber Rattlesnake, I was about five feet away before I noticed it. The Timber reared up into the air in a ready-to-strike pose and fired up the rattle. Of course, he had no intention of actually trying to bite me; he was just wanting to scare me, and it worked. I quickly backed up which gave the Timber a chance to escape under a log and out of sight. It worked like a charm. So how exactly does a rattle work? Hollow modified scales are interlocked, and a muscle connects to all of the scales as well. The muscle contracts at an incredibly fast rate (50 times per second on average), making the modified scales vibrate against each other. This creates the infamous buzzy-rattle.

Myth time: It is often said that you can tell the age of a rattlesnake by how many segments are on the rattle. This is a completely unreliable method for a few reasons. First, rattlesnakes do indeed add segments as they age; however, they add a segment every time they shed their skin. The kicker is that they may shed their skin multiple times a year, adding multiple segments in a year. On top of that, it is relatively easy for part of the rattle to break off. Rattlesnakes take great care in trying to preserve their rattle, but segments do break off in day-to-day life. As you can see, it would be impossible to tell the age of an individual from the number of segments.

Timber Rattlesnake Ohio
After having a nice photo-shoot with the Timber that was on the road, I realized that I was going to have to move him. He was laying in the middle of a small gravel road, making it impossible to pass. Luckily, I had a trekking pole in my car. With the pole extended to the fullest degree, I gently picked up his tail in hopes that he would slither away. Instead, he quickly curled up into this defensive coil. Peering out at me, he simply sat there calmly. It was during this moment when a sad thought crossed my mind; had another individual come across this calm snake on their property, there's a good chance they would have simply killed it. Not only is it highly illegal to do so, but it is completely unnecessary. These snakes, as well as all snakes in Ohio, keep to themselves and really don't pose a threat to humans unless a human is provoking one. It seems really simple to me; don't mess with a wild animal, and it won't mess with you. There's no reason to kill it simply because it has the capacity to possibly harm you. It's senseless killings out of fear that have played a huge role in driving this species to near extinction in Ohio. Couple that with the rampant forest clearing of the late 1800's and early 1900's and you have a species that's struggling to get by.

Timber Rattlesnake Ohio
Crossing a road puts Timber Rattlesnakes, as well as many other reptile and amphibian species, at risk. A car going quickly down this road would not have seen the snake in time and would have accidentally ran it over.

Forests have come back in southern Ohio, but the Timber Rattlesnake still faces many threats. For one, this is still a hated and feared species for many people, and killings still occur. Second, this species reproduces slowly. Sure, there's now more forest habitat than there was 100 years ago, but it is unsure whether the Timber Rattlesnake populations still in existence will ever recolonize these new areas. Sadly, Timbers are nearly impossible to reintroduce to new areas too. They use one den their entire life, and if moved to a new area they will try to get back to their old den, resulting in death when winter comes. As a result, captive breeding and reintroduction programs would be highly unsuccessful. Another threat the Timber Rattlesnake faces is alteration of their habitat. Roads and highways have fragmented the forest and this species, like many others, falls victim to cars. On top of that, there is threat from the state government. Most of the populations left in Ohio are restricted to State Forests. Unlike State Parks, parts of State Forests are essentially leased out to logging companies. These companies will selectively log parts of the forest, resulting in habitat destruction. A recent article in the Columbus Dispatch has highlighted another problem. The Division of Forestry does prescribed burns in the State Forests to promote oak and hickory tree growth. These trees make for good timber, and this makes the forests more attractive to potential logging companies, meaning the state can lease the land for more money. Due to the state laws surrounding endangered species, the Division of Forestry cannot burn or allow logging in areas where the Timber Rattlesnake is specifically known to live, leading to decreased profits which has angered many officials. Once again, we are faced with another "Spotted Owl vs. Timber Companies" scenario, where tensions are rising between those for wildlife conservation and those for jobs and money.

Timber Rattlesnake Ohio
I see you.
That was a lot of doom and gloom, so let's move to some more biological information about the Timber Rattlesnake. The Timber Rattlesnake is a snake of mature deciduous forests. Preferring the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Mountains and foothills, this species is often found on dry ridgetops. Pregnant females prefer more open and rocky areas during the Summer, while males and non-pregnant females prefer dense closed-canopy parts of the forest. During the winter, Timber Rattlesnakes will find a deep crevice in rocky ledges to brumate (the reptile version of hibernation). In Ohio, this species is most active from May to September. They feed primarily on small mammals, although they will also take birds, frogs, and other snakes. Adults typically reach anywhere from 3 to 4.5 feet in length and come in two color morphs. The one pictured in this post is a yellow morph, while others come in a black morph (which you can see here).

This ended up being a much longer post than I anticipated, but this is a species that I'm so excited to write about. It's always a wonderful pleasure to see and write on an endangered species, especially a species as awesome as a rattlesnake! Thanks for reading!


  1. What an excellent and informative post! Thank you very much for writing this, especially as so much education is needed. The only rattlesnake that is occasionally found up in my area is the Massasauga, and I would be thrilled to see a Massasauga one of these years.

  2. Wonderful post, i have found your site, and it is actually packed with high quality content and photos. Thanks

  3. Those are great shots, I would be very proud if I took those pictures.

  4. Wow really stunning photos, also great content and information, keep up the good work. Thank you.

  5. Super article and photos! Can you, or anyone you know, estimate the last time a timber rattler existed in Morgan County Ohio?


    Rod Rollison

    1. I tried finding some records, but was unable to locate any specific year records for Morgan County. They have been recorded in the county historically, but I have no idea when the last record was from. If I had to guess, it would probably have been somewhere between 1900 and 1930.