Species Profile: Timber Rattlesnake (With pictures and Facts)

One of the most frightening animal species out there is the rattlesnake. Its beautiful shape and color can be quite menacing if you are familiar with it. This is not a snake you want to come head to head with on a hike in the woods or in your backyard.

And yet, the Timber rattlesnake is probably the least dangerous of all other rattlesnakes. The Timber rattlesnake has some unique features and habits about it that make it different.

There are some characteristics that are the same as the other rattlesnakes, and we’ll share those too, but maybe you’ll be able to learn how to differentiate between the other kinds of rattlesnakes and the Timber rattlesnake once you finish reading this. 

Name (Crotalus Horridus)

It is not clear how they got the name “Timber”, but their scientific name is Crotalus Horridus which means- “bell or rattle” and “dreadful or horrid”.  If you swap the two, its name would be “Dreadful Rattle”.  This is probably due to its venom, which we’ll talk about more in depth in another section. 

The name Crotalus (or Sisturus)  comes from the word meaning “castanet”. A castanet is a tail rattler. Sisturus, or a sistrum is a musical instrument that resembles a rattle. 

However, I could not find a single thing on why they call it a Timber rattlesnake. So, I guess that one is a mystery. They do have another name as well. In some places they are called the Canebrake rattlesnake. 

It can be confusing as to which name is the correct one, because some people call Timber rattlesnakes the Canebrake, while others argue that the Canebrake and the Timber are entirely different snakes. They have not been able to come to a general consensus, but that’s the debate. 

For this profile I’m going to refer to this snake as the Timber rattlesnake. The Timber is this rattlesnake’s most common name. So as not to confuse anybody, I’ll just stick with Timber. 

Size and Lifespan

Timber rattlesnakes are relatively large. They get to be about 3-5 feet in length. The largest Timber rattlesnake was able to get to a weight of about 10 pounds. (That’s huge for a rattlesnake!) Most, however, will only weigh about 1-2 pounds each. 

In the wild Timber rattlesnakes can live as long as 30 years, which is high for their species. In captivity, they can live for even longer.  The high age in which they can reach for captivity is about 37 years, which is 7 years more than in the wild.

When it comes to maturity, Timber Rattlesnakes reach it when they get to about 4-11 years old. Their time frame is extremely broad. It is true also that male Timber rattlesnakes reach maturity sooner than female ones.

The males will reach maturity at about 5 years of age, while the females will reach maturity a bit later, at about 8 years. This number can vary as I’ve mentioned earlier. 

Anatomy and Physical Appearance

Physical Appearance: The Timber rattlesnake has a line that travels from the bottom of their eyes to the corner of their mouth. They do not have the diamond pattern like the Diamondback does, but they have a striped pattern which can be brown, black, and tan.

Sight and Hearing: Timbers cannot see and, like all other rattlesnakes, it has different methods of detection. One you may be familiar with would be the ability to sense vibrations. Rattlesnakes slide their entire body across the ground.

Have you ever laid down on the floor with both hands to the side and tried to slide like a snake across the floor? It’s hard, right? To all of us mammals which walk on two or four legs, this is not very effective.

However, with their body constantly touching the ground, and their excellent ability to sense through vibrations, Timber rattlesnakes can tell when an animal or human is coming.

This makes for an excellent defense mechanism and predatory advantage. Besides, their body anatomy is such that they are built to move that way. But, interestingly enough, this isn’t the only way they see. 

Timbe rattlesnakes also have heat-sensing “pit organs” like the rest of their pit viper kind. They can see heat signatures through their infrared sensing. This method, in addition to feeling vibrations, makes them quite super in my opinion. 

Habitat

The eastern United States is where their natural home is and where they are most commonly found. There aren’t many in Florida, however. They like to live in woodland areas with lots of hills.

They mainly stay in the darker areas where they can hide. They tend to avoid large populations of people and will stay clear of urbanized areas. They also like farmlands, swamps and floodplains, and moist areas. 

Note: Depending on what state you live, it is not illegal to keep a rattlesnake if you have a license. They aren’t the ideal pet and are not advisable to own because they are dangerous, especially if you have children, but it is not illegal. 

As with most snakes, they will also linger around areas that are near their prey. Many say that the best way to get rid of these snakes is to dominate the areas that carry their food sources. If you get rid of the rattlesnakes’ food source, you get rid of the snake. It will move on and you won’t have to kill it or worry about anyone being in any danger.

Predators and Prey

Did you know that you can eat a rattlesnake? I’m going to begin with a story that will shock you. I was camping with my church group and we were out in Wyoming. The boys came across a rattlesnake, and with excitement, they ran to go find their older leaders.

It took them little time before they had killed it with a shovel and packaged it up for later. (Where I’m from rattlesnakes are considered a nuisance.)

That night they skinned it and cooked it up, distributing it for everyone to eat. It was quite the experience. I missed out and didn’t get to eat any, but I learned that day that humans can eat rattlesnakes. (I also learned from some of my peers that it tastes like stringy chicken…blech!) Bet you didn’t know that!

As well as humans being able to eat Timber rattlesnakes, there’s also hawks, owls, cats, Kingsnakes, Black Rat snakes, and other various creatures.  They use their aforementioned heat-sensing and vibrations to help protect themselves from prey, but it does not always ward them off.

Timber rattlesnakes will eat rodents, small mammals, small birds, frogs, and sometimes other snakes. The other kinds of snakes it might eat are other rattlesnakes(rarely) and garter snakes. They are more often seen with garter snakes if they are going to eat other snakes at all. 

They are most often found on top of fallen logs when they are trying to catch their prey because it give them the higher-ground advantage. This higher-ground advantage technique is unique to the Timber rattlesnake.

Males and Females

With a lot of snakes, it is difficult to tell whether they are male or female. Timber rattlesnakes are not one of those. It is a bit easier to tell whether they are male or female by looking at the size and shape of their tails. The males have a large end of their tail, while females tend to taper off sooner, being thinner.

The male tails are generally larger because they have their male hemipenes. (That’s why there’s a size difference.) The female does not have this which is why her tail is smaller. Both males and females have rattles, but there is no difference in size when it comes to their rattles.

Interesting Fact: The Timber rattlesnake is on the section of the conservation list of least concern. This means they are in no danger of becoming extinct any time soon. 

Timber rattlesnakes’ behavior is unique during mating season. Males will often fight each other for the females. Their fighting was named the “combat dance”. Both males will wrap around each other and go head to head. They move back and forth, swaying till one of them loses. The smaller males will usually lose.

When females are about to give birth they will sit on what is called “basking knolls”. This could be a rock or a place which gets a lot of the sun. The females heat themselves right before giving birth. 

Females will also leave scent trails for her young to find so they can make it to their winter den. Timber rattlesnakes keep careful watch over their young, which is not a common trait among snakes. They have a period of about 2 to 3 years between litters and don’t reach maturity until about 5 years of age.

Behavior

You’re probably used to hearing that rattlesnakes are dangerous and aggressive. While all rattlesnakes are dangerous, the Timber rattlesnake will likely be one you will pass by without even realizing it was there. The Timber is very shy.

You aren’t likely to find one hiking. Even if you do, the Timber rattlesnake will give you a clear warning that you are getting too close (or that he/she feels threatened) by rattling the end of its tail.

The Timber rattlesnake is a roamer. It likes to explore, and it will go several miles away from its winter den with no intention of sitting still for very long. It does not have a permanent home. The only consistency they will stay true to is their winter den. 

Timber rattlesnakes do not like the winter and will go back to their den in time for the brumation period. (snake hibernation) In the brumation den, these snakes may even brumate together with copperheads and black rat snakes. (I believe this to be counterproductive since Black rat snakes have been known to eat Timbers- talk about sleeping with the enemy!)

Another unique fact about the Timber rattlesnakes is that they can recognize their brothers and sisters even after a long time of being apart. (It is not common for snakes to stay emotionally familiar with each other.)

Timber rattlesnakes come out in the daytime and the night-time. They prefer to remain coiled for long periods of time so they can be prepared to catch their prey. They are nocturnal and they are diurnal.

Venom

Even though more deaths are caused by the diamondback than any other rattlesnake, the Timber rattlesnake is the most deadly. Its venom is highly toxic. If you are bitten, you are in danger. Because of their shy disposition they aren’t as big of a threat as the Diamondback, but that doesn’t mean their venom is less toxic.

Out of all the rattlesnakes out there, the Timber rattlesnake has the highest yield. Their venom can cause all sorts of damage. It is primarily used for rattlesnakes in their feeding, but when injected into your bloodstream, it will cause some serious issues.

In its prey, rattlesnake venom will cause paralysis and death. In humans, it can cause vomiting, blurred vision, aching, and it can inhibit blood coagulation. (This means your blood will lose its ability to clot.) You may have difficulty breathing and you will become weak.

Cool Fact: It is possible to tame a rattlesnake. The danger of getting bitten will go down, and over time the snake may become more friendly. The fact that the rattlesnake is venomous will never go away and you should NEVER hand feed a venomous snake-pet.

This process, if not treated quickly, will continue until you die. The venom spreads quickly. It is even more rapid in rodents and small mammals because of their size.

Click here for an article on our site which can give you a more extensive explanation of what to do if you are bitten by a snake. It will give an overview of what to do when you are bitten, and facts about non-venomous and venomous snakes.

As snakes get older, their venom gets stronger and more potent. The older the snake, the more danger they have of being toxic. Also, larger snakes tend to be able to carry more venom. Their fangs are larger and they can store more. (So, word of advice, stay away from the really big ones!)

About the Rattle and Shedding

A rattlesnakes’ rattle is a very important part of its anatomy. It is vital to the snake’s ability to protect itself and ward off predators. This description is separate from the anatomy section because of the rattle’s unique purpose and structure. The full rattle is not actually present at the beginning of these snakes lives.

The rattle is created over time and does not exist when th snake is born. It starts out as a small nub, which then continues to add on pieces every time the snake sheds. You might think that this would tell you how old the snake is but it doesn’t.

All rattlesnakes will hold their tail up as they slither forward because the rattle is hollow and fragile. They lose pieces from their tail all the time, which would make it difficult to judge their age by the number of added rattle sections.

Because it is the most deadly rattlesnake, it is illegal in some areas to transport or sell timber rattlesnakes. (Sounds like they are considered a weapon.)

The Timber rattlesnake only sheds about 1-2 times a year.  Many other species will shed more than that, but rattlesnakes shed less. Each time it sheds, the rattle gains another ring. It adds rings for its entire life and will not stop until the snake is dead. 

When danger approaches a Timber rattlesnake, they give fair warning to whoever is approaching by shaking its tail rapidly back and forth. This shaking is unique to rattlesnakes. It has to be extremely fast.

When rattlesnakes do this, it seems as though they have something inside those hollow pieces in their rattle. I’d always wondered that myself, but they don’t.

Natural/Unnatural Dangers to the Timber Rattlesnake

While the Timber rattlesnake is not on the list of endangered species, there are still natural threats and circumstances which may pose a threat to their survival.

Note: Any species that is not cared for or is neglected can slip onto the conservation list of endangered species without anyone even noticing. 

Dangers caused by people:

Something you might not know is that Timber rattlesnakes are often poached. They are captured and skinned for their beautiful scaled coloring. They are so unique that they have become a popular catch in the illegal pet trade. 

What is the illegal pet trade? Well, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. It’s the capturing or killing of endangered species, or, the capturing and killing a species into extinction. 

To take a wild Timber rattlesnake out of its habitat is a great danger because they aren’t used to domestic living. They are used to be in the wild, it’s what they are familiar with. If you take one out of the wild, they could be in danger of dying. 

Some animals will do fine when they are domesticated (even some Timber rattlesnakes) but when you take them out of their natural habitat you are putting them in danger. 

Habitat Dangers:

Another circumstance that is dangerous to Timber rattlesnakes is to take away their home. Because they are used to forested areas, if you cut them down, it’s not that easy for them to find a new home.

Timber rattlesnakes use their dens annually. They’ve become accustomed to their den area and are in more danger if they have to go looking for another home unnecessarily.

You may not be worried about the Timber rattlesnake’s home being flattened, but one of the places they may seek refuge is someone’s backyard. 

They’ve no where to go. In addition to having their home cut down is their hunting ground. They have to relocate themselves to survive. They’ll likely search for wooded areas where there are a lot of rodents and insects.

This doesn’t always have to mean they will come into your backyard. It does mean that the likelihood of them entering your backyard and making it their hunting ground and home has increased. 

Dangers Which Come From Disease:

In places like New Hampshire and Massachusetts, they are finding Timber rattlesnakes which have been affected by a fungus called Chrysosporium. Chrysosporium is a fungus which can grow on the inside of the snake and also on the outside of it. 

It started out effecting only Massasauga rattlesnakes but then expanded to other species; Timber rattlesnakes being one of those. Timber rattlesnakes will grow tumors and disfiguring lesions on their heads. This fungus can also cause some deformities and can quickly take a Timber rattlesnake’s life.  

Most of the time these lesions and infections are found on the male Timber but not the female. This is most likely primarily due to the fact that male Timber’s are out roaming around more than females.

Their most prolonged amount of time outside their den is in the spring during mating season. They go searching for females to mate with and will not stop until they do. At this time they are likely to be exposed by any number of diseases, wear, and tear that wouldl put their life in danger.

To protect themselves from the disease, some Timber rattlesnakes will shed their skin multiple times because what is there is pretty dead anyway. 

Related Questions

How many people are killed each year by rattlesnakes? Several thousands of people are bitten each year by snakes, of those about five result in death. Most of those deaths are caused by rattlesnakes. They are the leading cause of snake bite deaths. 

How long do I have to live once I’m bitten by a rattlesnake? Once you are bitten by a rattlesnake you should get to the hospital or seek medical care within 30 minutes of being bitten. Snake venom travels fast and you will start feeling symptoms quickly after you’ve been bitten. It will take around 2-3 days for organ damage or death to occur. (That is not taking into account children, elderly, or people with weak immune systems.)

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