Timber Rattlesnake (Yellow Phase) Jesse W. Jaycox

Timber Rattlesnake (Yellow Phase)
Jesse W. Jaycox

Class
Reptilia (Reptiles)
Family
Viperidae (Vipers and Pit Vipers)
State Protection
Threatened
Federal Protection
Not Listed
State Conservation Status Rank
S3
Global Conservation Status Rank
G4

Summary

Did you know?

Newborn timber rattlesnakes, often born well away from the overwintering den, follow the scent trails of adult snakes back to the den for hibernation (Brown and MacLean 1983, Reinert and Zappalorti 1988).

State Ranking Justification

There are approximately 205 extant dens known in the state, but when interacting and potentially interacting populations are taken into consideration, the number of occurrences will be in the range of 35 to 60. Indiscriminate killing and unregulated collecting, including a past bounty system in some portions of the range, has resulted in many populations becoming extirpated or depleted in numbers in most areas where the species was once numerous. Bounties on timber rattlesnakes were outlawed in New York State in 1971, but even in areas without bounties, rattlesnakes were collected or severely persecuted by local residents in many areas. These factors, combined with a low reproductive potential, and current threats such as development, illegal collecting, and other disturbance factors will likely prevent or slow population recovery.

Short-term Trends

Declines and extirpation of some timber rattlesnake populations have been documented within the past 25 years and will likely continue to some degree given current threats.

Long-term Trends

Timber rattlesnakes have been subjected to substantial reduction due to specimen collection and persecution during the past century and it is believed that denning populations in New York have been reduced by 50% to 75% of their historical numbers (Brown 1984, 1988). Management efforts focused on habitat protection and public education have somewhat stabilized the remaining populations, but loss of habitat continues to be a threat to the species.

Conservation and Management

Threats

Loss of habitat, habitat fragmentation, mining, road mortality, illegal collecting, persecution, and pathogenic organisms are all considered threats to timber rattlesnake populations.

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

Nuisance response efforts aimed at moving rattlesnakes out of areas where they may be harmed are in effect in some areas and these efforts may be useful in other locations where homes are located within the summer foraging habitat. Timber rattlesnakes should be taken into consideration when determining trail placement on public lands. Mitigation measures to manage the adverse effects of habitat fragmentation should be developed and implemented.

Research Needs

Standardized survey protocols need to be developed and implemented at all known and potentially suitable sites to document the character, quality, and extent of occupied habitat.

Habitat

Habitat

In the Northeast, this species inhabits mountainous or hilly deciduous or mixed deciduous-coniferous forests, often with rocky outcroppings, steep ledges, and rock slides (Petersen and Fritsch 1986, Brown 1993). Dens, or hibernacula, are located in rocky areas where underground crevices provide retreats for overwintering (Brown 1993). New York dens are often located in accumulations of talus below ledges or in fractures within or underneath ledges or rock outcrops. Rattlesnakes use open canopy, rocky areas for basking, shedding, gestating, and birthing. Foraging areas are generally located within forested habitat surrounding the den.

Associated Ecological Communities

  • Acidic talus slope woodland (guide)
  • Appalachian oak-hickory forest (guide)
  • Appalachian oak-pine forest (guide)
  • Beech-maple mesic forest (guide)
  • Calcareous cliff community (guide)
  • Calcareous talus slope woodland (guide)
  • Chestnut oak forest (guide)
  • Cliff community (guide)
  • Floodplain forest (guide)
  • Hemlock-northern hardwood forest (guide)
  • Limestone woodland (guide)
  • Maple-basswood rich mesic forest (guide)
  • Oak-tulip tree forest (guide)
  • Pitch pine-oak-heath rocky summit (guide)
  • Red cedar rocky summit (guide)
  • Rocky summit grassland (guide)
  • Shale cliff and talus community (guide)
  • Shallow emergent marsh (guide)
  • Shrub swamp (guide)

Associated Species

  • Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)
  • Racer (Coluber constrictor)
  • Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides)
  • Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus)

Range

New York State Distribution

Although widespread in the state as a whole, timber rattlesnakes are now found in isolated or semi-isolated populations in southeastern New York, the southern tier, and the peripheral eastern Adirondacks. Populations were once found on Long Island and in most mountainous and hilly areas of the state, except for the higher elevations of the Adirondacks, Catskills, and the Tug Hill Plateau.

Global Distribution

The timber rattlesnake ranges from central New England south to northern Florida and west to eastern Texas, central Oklahoma, eastern Kansas, southeastern Nebraska, southern and eastern Iowa, and southeastern Minnesota. The distribution is spotty along the western and northern edges of the range. Sizeable populations still occur in the Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania though the Virginias, across eastern Kentucky and Tennessee to northeastern Alabama, in the Ouachita and Boston mountains of Arkansas and extreme eastern Oklahoma, in heavily wooded sections of the southeastern Coastal Plain from North Carolina to northeastern Florida and west to Louisiana and southern Arkansas, and in the Piedmont in the Uwharrie National Forest of central North Carolina and Pine Mountain of west-central Georgia (Martin, in Tyning 1992). The overwintering dens occur at elevations of up to about 5,000 feet in the southern Appalachians, 2,200 feet in southern New England, and about 1,300 feet in northeastern New York, Wisconsin, and Minnesota and individuals may range to higher elevations during the summer (Martin, in Tyning 1992).

Best Places to See

  • Timber rattlesnakes are currently on display at the Bear Mountain Trailside Museum in Bear Mountain, New York (http://nysparks.state.ny.us/parks/info.asp?parkID=55). (Rockland County)
  • As this species is vulnerable to illegal collection, no naturally occurring populations are listed.

Identification Comments

Identifying Characteristics

This is a heavy bodied snake of forested uplands. The young measure approximately 12 inches at birth and adults range from 36 to 60 inches in length (Conant and Collins 1998). The coloration and pattern is highly variable geographically (Conant and Collins 1991) with two main color variations, yellow or black, found in New York. The yellow variation has a yellow head and body with black or dark brown crossbands and the crossbands, which may be "V"-shaped, may break up anteriorly to form a row of dark spots down the back and along each side of the body (Conant and Collins 1998). The black variation has a black head and body with black crossbands and a reddish mid-dorsal stripe may be present. Some individuals that are considered to be the black variation have black heads, yellow bodies, and dark crossbands. In some locations, completely black specimens are not unusual (Conant and Collins 1998). The scales have longitudinal keels giving the snake a rough textured appearance. Timber rattlesnakes, like other pit-vipers, have a two heat-sensitive openings, or pits, situated below and between the eye and nostril. This sensory organ aids the snake in the detection of prey. As the name implies, rattlesnakes also have a rattle at the end of the tail that is made up of loosely attached segments. A new segment is added each time the snake sheds it skin, which is about 1.5 times per year. When disturbed, a rattlesnake will vibrate its tail, causing the loose segments to create a buzzing sound.

Characters Most Useful for Identification

The presence of a rattle is the most useful diagnostic characteristic.

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification

Adults may be easier to identify than newborn rattlesnakes, but in general the coloration and pattern of adults and young are similar, although newborn timber rattlesnakes may be more gray in color. Newborn timber rattlesnakes have a single rattle segment called a button.

Behavior

In New York, timber rattlesnakes hibernate in communal dens, often with copperheads (also venomous), and other species non-venomous snakes. Depending on the latitude and local weather conditions, hibernation generally begins from mid-September through late-October and continues through the winter until late-March through mid-May. During the active season, rattlesnakes will generally use forested habitats up to 2.5 miles (4 km) or greater from their overwintering dens for foraging and other activities. Mating takes place during late-July to early-August and the young are born in August or September of the subsequent year.

Diet

Timber rattlesnakes mainly prey upon small rodents such as mice, chipmunks, and gray squirrels, but they will also take songbirds on occasion.

Best Time to See

In general, timber rattlesnakes are active from late April until mid-October. In some locations, rattlesnakes may start to enter dens in mid-September and may not emerge until late-May, especially at more northern locations.

  • Present
  • Reproducing

The time of year you would expect to find Timber Rattlesnake present and reproducing in New York.

Similar Species

  • Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix)
  • Eastern Massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus)

Timber Rattlesnake Images

Taxonomy

Timber Rattlesnake
Crotalus horridus Linnaeus, 1758

  • Kingdom Animalia
    • Phylum Craniata
      • Class Reptilia (Reptiles)
        • Order Squamata (Lizards, Snakes and Amphisbaenians)
          • Family Viperidae (Vipers and Pit Vipers)

Additional Resources

References

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Behler, J. L., and F. W. King. 1979. The Audubon Society field guide to North American reptiles and amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 719 pp.

Brown, C. W., and C. H. Ernst. 1986. A study of variation in eastern timber rattlesnakes, Crotalus horridus Linnaeus (Serpentes: Viperidae). Brimleyana 12:57-74.

Brown, W. S. 1984. Background information for the protection of the timber rattlesnake in New York state. Bull. Chicago Herptetol. Soc. 19:94-97.

Brown, W. S. 1987. Hidden life of the timber rattler. National Geographic 172:128-138.

Brown, W. S. 1988. Timber rattlesnake: background information for protection as a threatened species in New York State. New York Herpetologoical Society Newsletter No. 115. 2 pp.

Brown, W. S. 1991. Female reproductive ecology in a northern population of the timber rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus. Herpetologica 47:101-115.

Brown, W. S. 1993. Biology, status, and management of the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus): a guide for conservation. SSAR Herp. Circ. No. 22. vi + 78 pp.

Brown, W. S., D. W. Pyle, K. R. Greene, and J. B. Friedlander. 1982. Movements and temperature relationships of timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) in northeastern New York. J. Herpetol. 16:151-161.

Brown, W.S. and F.M. Maclean. 1983. Conspecific scent-trailing by newborn timber rattlesnakes, Crotalus horridus. Herpetologica 39(4):430-436.

Campbell, J. A., and E. D. Brodie, Jr., editors. 1992. Biology of the pit vipers. Selva, Tyler, Texas.

Chambers, R.E. 1983. Integrating timber and wildlife management. State University of New York, College of Environmental Science and Forestry and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Collins, J. T. 1982. Amphibians and reptiles in Kansas. Second edition. Univ. Kansas Mus. Nat. Hist., Pub. Ed. Ser. 8. xiii + 356 pp.

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Conant, R. 1975. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. Second Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. xvii + 429 pp.

Conant, R. and J. T. Collins. 1991. A field guide to reptiles and amphibians: eastern and central North America. Third edition. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Massachusetts. 450 pp.

Conant, R., and J. T. Collins. 1998. A field guide to reptiles and amphibians: eastern and central North America. Third edition, expanded. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Massachusetts. 616 pp.

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Martin, W. H. 1992. Phenology of the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) in an unglaciated section of the Appalachian Mountains. Pages 259-277 in Campbell, J. A., and E. D. Brodie, Jr. Biology of the pit vipers. Selva, Tyler, Texas.

Martin, W. H. 1993. Reproduction of the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) in the Appalachian Mountains. J. Herpetol. 27:133-143.

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Petersen, R. C., and R. W. Fritsch, II. 1986. Connecticut's Venomous Snakes: The Timber Rattlesnake and Northern Copperhead. Second Edition. State Geol. Nat. Hist. Surv. Connecticut. Bull. 111. 48 pp.

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Reinert, H. K., and R. T. Zappalorti. 1988. Timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) of the Pine Barrens: their movement patterns and habitat preference. Copeia 1988:964-978.

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Links

About This Guide

Information for this guide was last updated on: April 4, 2006

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2019. Online Conservation Guide for Crotalus horridus. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/timber-rattlesnake/. Accessed January 18, 2019.

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