Animal Spotlight

Timber Rattlesnakes

 
There’s a fascinating reptile that calls the Blue Ridge Mountains home. Known for its triangular head, slanted eyes and elliptical pupils, the timber rattlesnake has become a feared species among some Western North Carolina residents. Learning the facts and using caution will show that there’s much more than meets the eye.
 
Rattlesnakes are venomous creatures. Despite their reputation, however, rattlesnakes prefer not to bite. Their initial defense mechanisms are to either lay motionless, camouflage with their surroundings, flee or warn off predators by “rattling.” Knowing how to identify native venomous snakes will minimize potential interactions.
 
Large and stocky, rattlesnakes often measure between 36 and 68 inches in length. Their ridged scales give them a rough-skinned appearance. WNC rattlesnakes can be identified by their color morphs. Yellow phase rattlesnakes are yellow or tan with black or brown cross-bands while black phase rattlesnakes are almost solid black with darker patterns. Coloration often varies between regions. Their camouflaged patterns are especially important for successful hunting tactics. As sit-and-wait predators, rattlesnakes will blend into their surroundings, wait in an ambush position, capture their prey and kill it by injecting venom. Their carnivorous diets consist mostly of small mammals and occasionally birds.

Distinguished by the rattle on the end of their tail, rattlesnakes may add a new segment each time they shed. The number of segments are often said to determine age. However, rattlesnakes may shed more than once a year and segments may come off with each shed resulting in an inaccurate age estimation. When frightened by potential predators, they will vibrate the tip of their tail to create the well-known “rattling” sound. As members of the pit viper family, rattlesnakes can be identified by the pits or heat-sensitive organs located between their nostrils and eyes. They use these sensitive organs to detect body heat of both prey and potential danger.
 
As ectotherms, all snakes must acquire heat through their environment. To increase their body temperature, rattlesnakes will often bask on rocks or in areas with little tree cover. During the gestation period, gravid or pregnant rattlesnakes need to keep their body temperature up for successful development of young. Mating season generally occurs during the months of spring through early fall. Males will seek out females by following their pheromones. Females incubate the eggs in their body for an average of six months and give live birth to an average of nine young in membranous sacs. To cut through the clear membrane, the young use a special egg tooth. Typically, young rattlesnakes measure 8 to 10-inches long and are equipped with venom glands, fangs and their first rattle segment called a button! 
 
As both predators and prey, rattlesnakes play an important role in the ecosystem. These carnivorous reptiles assist with small mammal population control and disease control. They are also a food source for larger predators like coyotes, bobcats, foxes, birds of prey and even other snakes. Humans are one of the most common predators of rattlesnakes. 
 
Timber rattlesnake populations are highly susceptible to human activity. To help protect rattlesnake populations, avoid relocating individual species, protect habitats and do not disturb den sites. To avoid unwanted interactions, always be aware of your surroundings and watch your step when you are walking or hiking. Be cautious when picking up items that might provide shelter to rattlesnakes, such as woodpiles, scrap metal and similar debris. Don’t forget to share your knowledge of pit vipers and rattlesnakes to increase community awareness. In the rare case of a bite, seek immediate medical attention. 

The WNC Nature Center is home to a number of native reptiles including two timber rattlesnakes. Next time you take a trip to the WNC Nature Center, stop by Appalachian Station to practice your venomous snake identification skills!  
 
Shannon Lora
AmeriCorps Volunteer & Education Associate 
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