The physical coloration of the Timber Rattlesnake is quite variable throughout the species’ range. However, the basic pattern, dark W-shaped bands across the body on a lighter background, is fairly consistent. The background color varies from yellow to brown to gray and gets darker closer to the tail. The tail itself is usually black, and some individuals are almost entirely that color. In more northern populations, individuals tend to be darker and are most often yellow or black. The W-shaped bands are usually outlined in a lighter color that can even be seen on the darkest of individuals. Sometimes a light brown line along the spine runs the length of the body, though this is a trait more common in the Canebrake. Neonates have the same pattern as adults but usually have a gray body color for the first year after being born.
Timber Rattlesnakes are a large and robust snake, with males typically reaching lengths of up to 1.32 meters and females up to 1.09 m. While stories are often told of Timber Rattlesnakes exceeding two meters in length, these stories are exaggerated, and it is unlikely that any individuals exceed 1.5 m. Hatchlings are generally about 28 centimeters in total length.
Timber Rattlesnakes have very heavily-keeled scales and a divided anal plate with a single row of ventral scales behind the vent. The rattle, which is held upright when the snake feels threatened, is a very good way to distinguish rattlesnakes from certain nonvenomous species that can have somewhat similar patterns, such as a watersnake or milksnake.
There is a growing community of field herpers who spend their time in the field looking for reptiles and amphibians in the wild, much the same as how bird watchers search for birds in the wild. One of the species especially sought after by field herpers is the Timber Rattlesnake.
Timber Rattlesnakes are iconic predators of eastern North American hardwood forests. Timber Rattlesnakes are a symbol that Americans have always associated with strength and freedom. They were used as symbol of our unity during the French and Indian Wars and of our freedom during the American Revolution. They were prominently displayed on a flag with the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” Ben Franklin thought that the Timber Rattlesnake should be considered as a candidate for our national symbol.
They are often one of the last remaining top predators in the landscapes they inhabit and are true symbols of the last remaining wild places in Eastern North America. Timber Rattlesnakes feed primarily on rodents such as squirrels and mice and can play an important role in regulating their populations.
As a long-lived species with a high age at maturity and low annual fecundity, survival of adults, especially females, is key to population viability. Habitat fragmentation by roads has resulted in many snakes being killed by traffic, often intentionally. Because older and larger snakes tend to disperse farther from the dens every year, it is those larger individuals who are most important to rattlesnake populations but are also most likely to encounter roads. In some areas, Timber Rattlesnake dens have been isolated entirely from larger populations by roads, fields and developments, and they have begun to differentiate genetically.
Persecution by humans is a major threat to the species, and until the 1970s, many northeastern states paid a bounty for any killed rattlesnake. In most of these states, the species is now protected, but because bounty hunters were able to find gestating females more easily than any other snakes and because large numbers of snakes could be harvested at dens, the bounty effectively reduced populations to low levels in many places and possibly wiped out denning colonies. Despite the legal protections afforded to the species in the northeast now, intentional killing of snakes is still common practice. In the southeast, while no bounty is paid for the killing of Timber Rattlesnakes, the species is not protected and killing of the species is legal.
While bites from Timber Rattlesnakes can harm people, such bites are extremely rare and usually are the result of a person harassing or attempting to kill the snake. When a Timber Rattlesnake is encountered in the wild, the safest thing to do is to leave it alone and walk around it. The snake will not defend itself unless provoked. In the event of a bite, one should remain calm and seek emergency help. Deaths from Timber Rattlesnake bites are almost unheard of, and if medical help is sought out quickly, it is possible to avoid permanent tissue damage. If a Timber Rattlesnake is seen on your property and you feel uncomfortable having it in close proximity to your house, rather than kill it you should contact your state Department of Natural Resources or Fish and Wildlife Services. Many states have removal programs, and people in those departments should know who the best person to contact is.