Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

 

 

Timber Rattlesnake

(Crotalus horridus)

venomous*

 

At a glance: The Timber Rattlesnake is a venomous, but typically docile, pitviper of the eastern United States. This species occurs in both mountains and swamps, and is protected in many parts of its range.

*This snake is a pitviper with large front fangs. This species should be approached with care, and only handled by professionals. While typically docile, this species can and will bite. The venom is potent, and can cause severe injury or death. If bitten seek emergency medical care immediately. 


Quick Facts:

Scroll down for deeper look at each section

 

Common Names: Timber Rattler, Velvet Tail, Canebrake, Diamondback (incorrect)

Identification: Thick body, rattle on tip of tail, rough (never shiny) appearance.

Range: United States: New Hampshire south to Florida, west to Texas, North to Minnesota. Canada: Ontario.

Black: Extirpated, Orange: Threatened, Red: Endangered.
Timber Rattlesnake occurrence by state. Black: Extirpated, Orange: Threatened, Red: Endangered. Extirpated in Ontario, Canada. Map created by the author.

Activity: Diurnal (day), Nocturnal (night), Crepuscular (dawn and dusk)

Diet: Small mammals, occasionally birds and reptiles.

Habitat: Habitat generalist. However, due to widespread habitat loss and persecution, this species is now mostly found in mountainous areas and swamps.

Herping Tips: This species can be sensitive to disturbance, particularly around winter dens and rookeries. Try not to disturb this imperiled snake during the early spring, late summer, and fall.



In Depth Information:

  Identification:

Pattern and Color: The Timber Rattlesnake (timber) is a highly variable species, and can range from melanistic (black) to to bright yellow. In general, this snake has a light background with dark chevrons (marks that look like a sideways “V”). There is often a pale dorsal stripe (line down the back). Freshly hatched snakes are typically pale grey with dull marks, which lighten with each shed, including snakes that will eventually be completely black.

    • Snakes in the southeast are typically pale grey to pink, with reddish-brown dorsal stripe, and a dark post-ocular (behind the eye) stripe.
    • Snakes in the western portion of this species’ range also tend to be grey or pink, but with a more reddish/orange dorsal stripe, and a reddish-brown post-ocular stripe. They may also have white edges to their chevrons.
    • Snakes in the northeast tend to be either yellow or black, with yellow snakes lacking a post-ocular stripe, and melanistic snakes being completely or partially black.

A sample of the variation in this snake is show below. Information on the different regional color varieties paraphrased from The Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern/Central North America, by Conant and Collins.


Head: The head is broad and flat. The eyes are small but prominent, and the pupils are vertical. There is a loreal (heat) pit between the eyes and nostrils, used to sense infrared radiation. Inside the mouth are a pair of fangs, used to inject venom.

Key features in the head of a timber rattlesnake.
Key features in the head of a timber rattlesnake.

Body: This snake is heavy set, and a 6 foot snake can exceed 5 pounds in weight.

The author (6'3) with a 5+ lb timber rattlesnake. This snake was being handled as part of a scientific study and was prefaced by extensive safety training. Please do not attempt to handle wild rattlesnakes.
The author (6’3) with a 5+ lb timber rattlesnake. This snake was being handled as part of a scientific study and was prefaced by extensive safety training. Please do not attempt to handle wild rattlesnakes.

Size: Baby timber rattlesnakes snakes are typically between 7 and 16 inches long. Most adults snakes are between 3 and 5 feet, but the largest individuals max out at 6 feet 2 inches. Snakes longer than this should be reported to a professional herpetologist, but care should be taken to ensure lengths are not exaggerated.

Photography tricks should be taken into consideration before believing “giant” snake claims. Photo from http://www.livingalongsidewildlife.com/2009/07/return-of-giant-killed-rattlesnake.html

 

 


Behavior: The Timber Rattlesnakes is generally a placid snake, ignoring the presence of people. However, when agitated, the snake will use its tail rattle as a signal to the predator. This rattle is a warning, and this snake can strike up to half its body length or more. Do not approach wild rattlesnakes, just observe from afar. It is commonly thought that these snakes chase humans, but this is a myth. Given the chance, snakes will flee. Snakes that are not rattling can still strike and all rattlesnakes should be considered dangerous.

When hunting, this snake will often wait in ambush against a log, tree, or branch. The body will be coiled, with the upper body poised and tense. Timber rattlesnakes can remain in this hunting position for hours.

An Indiana timber rattlesnake waiting in ambush. Photo taken by the author.
An Indiana timber rattlesnake waiting in ambush. Photo taken by the author.

 


Range:

Current and historic range of the Timber Rattlesnake. Photo copywrite: The Orianne Society: http://www.oriannesociety.org/sites/default/themes/orianne/images/rangemaps/Timber_Rattlesnake1.jpg
Current and historic range of the Timber Rattlesnake. Learn more about this map and the conservation of this species at http://www.oriannesociety.org/timber-rattlesnake

Activity: Timber Rattlesnakes are most active during the spring and fall, as they emerge and enter their winter dens. In colder portions of their range, they may be limited emerge from their dens as late as May, and enter hibernation in October. In warmer regions, they may be active during every month of year, but limit winter activity to the warmest, sunniest days. This snake is diurnal, but may be active at night during the summer, particularly in the southern portion of their range.


Diet: This snake eats mostly rodents, but will occasionally eat small birds.

A large male Timber Rattlesnake eating a Grey Squirrel. Photo by the author.
A large male Timber Rattlesnake eating a Grey Squirrel. Photo by the author.

Habitat: Historically this snake was a generalist, occupying a wide range of habitats and geologic regions. Today, this snake is limited to wilder areas, with less human impact. In the northeast, Timber Rattlesnakes have been pushed back to the mountains, with small isolated populations. Of particular note are the snakes still left in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. In the south, they are snakes of both coastal plain swamps and Appalachian Mountains. Snakes living at higher elevations areas of low canopy cover, such as rock outcroppings, to bask and reach optimal body temperatures. These mountain snakes often den communally, whereas southern swamp snakes may den individually.


Herping Tips: Down south, these snakes can be found under cover objects such as tin sheets or wooden boards, or found crossing roads in the early morning/early evening.

 

In the northeast, this snake is becoming increasingly rare, so protecting locality information is very important! If you see a Timber Rattlesnake, make sure you don’t disclose that information to the public, and remove the GPS coordinates from any digital pictures you share!


 

John with tortoise

About the Author: John Vanek is a Master’s candidate at Hofstra University,where he studies the ecology of Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes. He received a BS in Wildlife Science from the SUNY-College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 2010. John has been fortunate enough to study a wide range of wildlife, including Eastern Hellbenders, Timber Rattlesnakes, Black Bears, and Peregrine Falcons. He has worked as a wildlife technician and environmental consultant for several companies, universities, and organizations. John can be reached on Twitter @Nomadofthehills and Instagram @johnpvanek. He is also a moderator for the 2,500 member facebook group Snake Identification.

Be sure to visit John’s article on the Eastern Hog-nose Snake

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

 

Eastern Hog-nosed Snake

(Heterodon platirhinos)

non-venomous*

 

At a glance: The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is a non-venomous, harmless toad-eater, often confused with copperheads and rattlesnakes due to an impressive BLUFF display (including headbutts and hissing), that ultimately plays “possum” when harassed.

*This snake has enlarged teeth in the back of it’s mouth, used exclusively for feeding. These teeth help deliver secretions that are toxic to amphibians, but not mammals. However, it is possible to be allergic to the secretions, so it is best not to stick your finger into the the mouth of this harmless snake.


 

Quick Facts:

Scroll down for an in depth look at each section

 

Common Names: Hognose, Adder (Sand Adder, Blow Adder, Spitting Adder), Viper (Sand Viper, Blow Viper)

Identification: Upturned snout, heavyset body. Variable color.  Loud hisser. Plays “possum”.

Size: Adults are typically 2 feet in length, but the largest can reach nearly 4 feet.

Range: United States: New Hampshire south to Florida, west to Texas, North to Minnesota. Canada: Ontario.

Eastern Hognose Occurrence by State
Eastern Hognose Occurrence by State. Map created by the author, John Vanek.

Activity: Diurnal (daylight), Crepuscular (dawn and dusk)

Diet: Amphibian specialist. Eats mostly frogs and salamanders, with a particular fondness for toads.

Habitat: Most commonly encountered in areas of sandy soil and open canopy, but can be found in mountains, rocky hillsides, and stream corridors.

Herping Tips: Focus searches in open sandy areas during the spring and fall breeding seasons. Avoid the hottest portions of the day, and don’t focus on movement: these snakes often stay put when first spotted. Road-cruising paved roads is generally unproductive for this species.

Conservation Concerns: While still common in some areas, this species is protected in many parts of its range due to habitat destruction and wanton killing.



In Depth Information:

  Identification:

Pattern and Color: The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake (hognose) is a highly variable species, and can range from complete black (melanism) to to bright yellow. In general, this snake has a light background with dark saddles. There is typically a dark band between the eyes, and the belly (ventral surface) is usually a light color. Freshly hatched snakes are typically grey with dark saddles, including snakes that will eventually be completely black. A sample of the massive variation in this snake is show below.

User submitted photos from the Facebook photo contest: Grey, Dave Fitzpatrick; Brown, Jamie Zachary; Yellow, Matt Sullivan; Red, Zack Tyler, Black, Zack Tyler, Dark with orange, Chris Kirby.

Head: The head is stout, with an upturned rostral (nose) scale. The eyes are set on the side of the head, and are large, with round pupils. The lips (labial scales) are often pale in color, even in black individuals. This snake will often flatten it’s head, giving it a triangular appearance. The top of the head typically has a unique set of markings that can be used to identify individuals (see below).

Original Photo by Kyle Loucks from Facebook Photo Contest
Original Photo by Kyle Loucks from Facebook Photo Contest

Body: This snake is heavy set, and is usually about twice the weight of a garter snake (Thamnophis sp.) of the same length. Like the head, the body can be compressed, and appear even wider. The “neck” has a hood, and can be spread like a cobra due to flexible ribs.

Example of a hognose spreading its "hood." Photo by @dgreen962 from the Instagram Photo Contest.
Example of a hognose spreading its “hood. Photo by @dgreen962 from the Instagram Photo Contest.

Behavior: The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is most famous for its incredible behaviors. When first encountered by a predator, this snake will hiss loudly, spread its hood, and curl it’s tail. It will often make a series of false strikes (essentially “headbutts”) with a closed mouth. If this fails, the snake will either crawl away, or play dead like an opossum. This elaborate death-feigning routine often starts with the regurgitation of a prey item. Then, the snake will writhe in circles, mouth open, tongue out, release the contents of its musk gland, and defecate. Finally, the snake flips over on it’s back, and will remain belly up. The snake will remain this way until the threat is gone. However, if the snake is picked up and placed back on it’s belly, it will flip back over onto it’s back, giving it away!

Example of H. platirhinos playing dead and regurgitating a toad. Photo by @willie_in_the_woods from the Instagram Photo Contest.
Example of H. platirhinos playing dead and regurgitating a toad. Photo by @willie_in_the_woods from the Instagram Photo Contest.

Size: Baby hognose snakes hatch out of the egg as little as 3 – 7 grams and roughly 5 inches in length, but grow quickly. Most adults snakes are about 2 feet long, but the largest individuals max out at ~4 feet.

Baby H. platirhinos. Photo by @itrains4days from the Instagram Photo Contest.
Baby H. platirhinos. Photo by @itrains4days from the Instagram Photo Contest.

Sexing: Males and females look very similar, and reach similar sizes (although females are typically larger than males). However, when comparing females and males of the same size, the male’s tail is much longer and thicker. Males typically have >45 pairs of caudal (tail) scales, whereas females typically have <45.

Male and female H. platirhinos
Male and female H. platirhinos.

 

Despite the female being much larger, the male has a longer tail.
Despite the female being much larger, the male has a longer tail.

 

Range: A snake of the eastern United States and Canada. In the United States, it occurs in southern New Hampshire south to Florida, including barrier islands along the coast, east to western Texas, and north to Minnesota. In Canada this species is only found in Ontario. Despite the broad range, a finer look at each state shows fragmented and sporadic occupancy. For example, in New York, the snake can only be found in small, disjunct populations on Long Island, the Saratoga Sand Plains/ Albany Pine Bush, and the lower Hudson Valley.

ny map
Distribution of H. platirhinos in New York, based on data from the NYS Herp Atlas.

Activity: 

Daily: The Eastern Hog-nosed Snake is primarily diurnal (active during the day), although it can also be found during dusk and dawn, particularly during the heat of the summer or in more southern portions of its range. This snake is rarely found to be active at night.

Seasonal: Hognose snakes usually have large home ranges (over 75 acres!), and individuals (males in particular) tend to move the most during the spring (emergence from hibernation) and fall (journey back to hibernation locations).


Diet: This species is an amphibian specialist. It mainly feeds on frogs, toads, spadefoots, and salamanders. In most areas, it feeds most heavily on toads (genus Bufo Anaxyrus ). The hognose snake is immune to the poison of toads and other frogs, possibly due to an enlarged adrenal gland. It is often thought that the hognose uses it’s enlarged rear fangs to “pop” inflated toads, but this is a myth. The teeth are used as anchors to prevent prey from escaping, as well as to help deliver its toxic (to amphibians) saliva. It will also eat newts and efts (genus Notophthalmus) and is likely immune to their poison as well.

A neonate H. platirhinos eating a young-of-the-year Fowler's Toad.
A neonate H. platirhinos eating a young-of-the-year Fowler’s Toad.

 


 

Habitat: The hognose snake is typically associated with sandy soil, but is actually a habitat generalist, and can be found in mountains, forests, plains, swamps, river valleys, and beaches. It does, however, appear to be most common (or commonly seen) in open, disturbed areas with sandy soil. This is likely because the snake digs a nest in sunny openings to lay its eggs, which require warm temperatures to hatch. Despite it’s preference for amphibians, standing water is not a requirement for this species, and it can survive in areas with only temporary sources of water (toads often only require short-lived pools or puddles to reproduce). It can occur in very dense populations on barrier islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

atlantic
Heterodon platirhinos from a NY barrier island. Photo by the author, John Vanek.

Herping Tips: Look for Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes during the spring and early fall. This snake can be found year round (in the southern portion of its range), but not as often during the summer or winter. It can tolerate hot temperatures, but is most active during the morning and late afternoon, avoiding the heat of the midday sun. In the northern part of its range, this snake hibernates during the winter, but may emerge to bask on warm days. It is not commonly found under cover objects, and most commonly encountered on sand roads or open sandy areas. This snake is only very rarely found on paved roads, and therefore road-cruising paved roads is ineffective.


 

John with tortoise

About the Author: John Vanek is a Master’s candidate at Hofstra University,where he studies the ecology of Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes. He received a BS in Wildlife Science from the SUNY-College of Environmental Science and Forestry in 2010. John has been fortunate enough to study a wide range of wildlife, including Eastern Hellbenders, Timber Rattlesnakes, Black Bears, and Peregrine Falcons. He has worked as a wildlife technician and environmental consultant for several companies, universities, and organizations. John can be reached on Twitter @Nomadofthehills and Instagram @johnpvanek, and is also a moderator for the 2,500 member facebook group Snake Identification.

Be sure to check out John’s article Timber Rattlesnake