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

Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix

Copperhead

Agkistrodon, contortrix

Venomous


Picture provided by @swamprattler
Picture provided by @swamprattler

Hi guys!  I am really excited about today’s species profile article. Why, you ask?  It’s because so many of my fellow Herpers had a part in it.  The pictures supporting the Copperhead piece came from followers of my Instagram account @plaxton.  Copperheads cruised, flipped, found chilling in natural habitat, and captive born were all added to the #HerpersGuide for submission.  Unfortunately I can’t fit all these great pictures on the article but I did get them in a video on our YouTube Channel.  My follower list on Instagram include some amazing Herpers.  I recommend you check out my following list to find some awesome people who help spread the word about Field Herping and the love they share for the reptiles and amphibians they find shows in their work.  Great Job to all of you and happy herping.



The Copperhead, Agkistrodon contortrix, Land Moccasin, one of the most famous snakes of North America.  Roads have been named after this snake, and songs have been written about this snake.  It is arguably the most beautiful of the North American Vipers.

Photo provided by: @tjweave
Photo provided by:
@tjweave

 Herping for these snakes can be a real treat.  These snakes are highly variable yet, so easy to identify.

The closest relative to the Copperhead is the Cottonmouth, Agkistrodon piscavorous.  The Copperhead is a pit viper that contains five recognized subspecies.

  • A. c. contortrix – Southern
  • A. c. laticinctus – Broad-Banded
  • A. c. mokasen – Northern
  • A. c. phaeogaster – Osage
  • A. c. pictigaster – Trans-Pecos
Photo Provided by: @captaincandlepants
Photo Provided by:
@captaincandlepants

The Copperhead’s average length is 30 inches with some specimen making it to nearly 40 inches.  The largest documented Copperhead I was able to find in my research was 4’6″ found in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The Chapel Hill specimen was a Southern X Northern innergrade.  The Copperhead is a stocky snake with the typical broad head found in pit vipers.

The color pattern is very variable.  The snake as a whole, is a tan to pinkish tan ground color that becomes darker as you move distal the head towards the tail.  There are darker colored bands moving laterally across the snake.  These cross-bands vary among subspecies being wide throughout, hour-glass, and segmented.  Like the other Agkistrodons, the young are born with a yellow tail that is thought to be used in luring pray near young snakes.

Note the bright yellow tail. Photo provided by: @bill_nye_the_herper_guy
Note the bright yellow tail.
Photo provided by:
@bill_nye_the_herper_guy

Many specimen have dark spots down the flanks.  These snakes can look very different even within the same geographic area.  There is enough diversity in this species that I have been able to view local specimen and guess where within my county they were found.  If you take this same concept and take it across the snake’s whole range, you will quickly discover just how diverse they really are.  With 5 subspecies, inner-grades along boundaries, and then variation among local populations make this snake one of the most diverse vipers in the USA.

Copperheads are sexually dimorphic as well.  Males have longer tails and have overall larger size.  Females, although not as long tend to have more

Photo Provided by: @rj_herplife
Photo Provided by:
@rj_herplife

girth.  This may be due to the high likelihood of being gravid.

Feeding/Diet:

Copperheads feed on frogs, toads, lizards, other snakes, and especially rodents.  Rodents, specifically mice and small rats are a primary food source over much of its range.  These snakes are very important in controlling rodent populations.  The Copperhead is generally an ambush predator except when actively pursuing cicada.  Copperheads seem to be fascinated with eating cicadas.

Photo Provided by: @rj_herplife
Photo Provided by:
@rj_herplife

Although the Copperhead typically stays on the ground, they will regularly climb trees to feed on cicadas as they emerge from their nymph casings.  I have used “cicada hotspots” near my home to help me find them.  There is one oak tree near my home that has a high cicada population.  I have found several Copperheads at the base of this tree over the years.  I have found as many as 4 Copperheads at its base at one time.

General Behavior:

The Copperhead is primarily a nocturnal animal meaning it is most active at night.  In my personal experiences, I rarely see the Copperhead out in the middle of the day.  I usually begin seeing them moving around about an hour before sunset through the first 3 or 4 hours of night.  The few I have seen moving in the middle of the day have been in early spring and late fall.

Many published works describe the Copperhead as being a social snake.  In rocky and mountainous habitat, they are regularly seen denning up together with other snakes for

Photo Provided by: @captaincandlepants
A pile of snakes!  Photo Provided by:
@captaincandlepants

the winter.  I am not sure if this is truly a social behavior or if it is due to limited dens.  I know that in the coastal plains of North Carolina, they can sometimes be seen close together but not truly denning up with each other.  I have found more than one specimen under the same piece of cover.

The Copperhead has a few behaviors that make it unusual in the snake world.  There is one behavior that has possibly caused the Copperhead trouble since the Copperhead range has been overpopulated by humans.  The defensive strategy sets this snake up for being the 1st place winner in the “bite a human category”.

Rattle snakes rattle their tail when they feel threatened.  Cottonmouths display the white of their mouth and shake their tail.  Rat Snakes musk and shake their tail. Eastern Hognose snakes hiss, flatten out like a cobra, and bluff strike a would be predator.  A Ringneck snake curls it’s tail and displays the bright colors on its underside when threatened.  The Nerodia family lunge towards an attacker before making their escape.  The Copperhead freezes where it is and hopes it isn’t spotted.

You can't see me! Photo Provided by: @johngarrisonphotography
You can’t see me!
Photo Provided by:
@johngarrisonphotography

This freezing up works great in preventing the animal from being spotted.  Many times this plan works too well.  Instead of getting out-of-the-way of a person walking near it, the snake ends up getting stepped on or approached too closely.  This results in many bites.  The Copperhead is responsible for more snake bites than all the other venomous snakes combined within it’s range.  The State with the most Copperhead bites goes to, North Carolina.

Habitat

Within the Copperhead range, this snake has mastered many habitats.  The Copperhead is terrestrial to semi-aquatic.  Although the Copperhead can swim rather well, I typically find them in dry or swampy environment and do not seem to see them in water deep enough to require swimming.  In most of the Copperhead range, it favors deciduous forest.  The dead leaf ground cover makes the Copperhead very difficult to spot.  The Copperhead is often associated with rock outcroppings and ledges in mountainous areas.  In my home range, the Copperhead likes woodlands near grassy outcrops.

Sawmill Habitat by Phillip Laxton. By: plaxton53
Sawmill Habitat by Phillip Laxton.
By: plaxton53

I have had a lot of luck at an abandoned saw mill near my home.  I have read several reports of people having similar luck around saw mills.  They like to bury themselves under rotting wood stacked up on the saw dust.  The saw mill is my go to spot when I want to see them moving around at night when on foot.  Cruising at night, on the road leading to the sawmill has also yielded good results.

Reproduction:

Copperheads give live birth to as few as one but as many as eleven young.  There are a few reports of as many as 15 young in one litter.  Both males and females reach sexual maturity around 4 years old.  They are typically around 2′ when they are ready to begin reproducing.  Through most of the range, there is two breeding seasons.  Spring and Fall mating occur each year.  Females that breed in the spring will give birth in fall and the fall breeders will give birth late spring.

Neat Fact:

The toxins within Copperhead venom are so similar to it’s cousin that there was no need to make Copperhead anti-venom.  Most bites do not require any anti-venom but when necessary, Cottonmouth anti-venom is what is used.

Herping Tips

Cruised @jadedherper
Cruised
@jadedherper
  • Night cruising produces the best results for quantity for me.  Humid yet moonlit nights bring out the Copperheads.
  • Cruising just before dark is another prime time.
  • When looking for active Copperheads, be sure to watch were you step.  They freeze when startled.
  • When flipping, look for rotten wood.  They seem to prefer a rotten log over a freshly fallen tree.
  • During cicada season, look up.

Thanks guys for checking in with HerpersGuide.com.  Be sure to check us out on our other media outlets: Facebook and Twitter Also, be sure to check out the Author’s personal Instagram here, for all his Herping adventures.