Timber rattlesnakes, also known as canebrake rattlesnakes or banded rattlesnakes, are common in the eastern half of the United States. Found mostly in wooded and rocky habitats, they are one of America’s most dangerous and venomous snakes in America.
Timber rattlesnake venom is highly toxic. It contains neurotoxins, which affect the brain, and myotoxins, which cause muscle necrosis. It also causes internal bleeding. However, timber rattlesnakes are afraid of humans and will only bite as a last resort.
Sadly, timber rattlesnake populations are on the decline. They are threatened or endangered in many states, at least partially due to people killing them out of fear. In this in-depth guide, we’ll share some timber rattlesnake facts, and learn how dangerous they are to humans.
What Are Timber Rattlesnakes?
Timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) are one of the most common venomous snakes in North America. They belong to the genus Crotalus, which contains most other rattlesnakes including prairie rattlesnakes and diamondback rattlesnakes. Timber rattlesnakes are sometimes called canebrake rattlesnakes or banded rattlesnakes.
Found across most of the central and eastern United States, timber rattlesnakes occupy a diverse range of habitats. They can be found as far north as New York and Minnesota, and as far south as Texas and Florida.
Their nickname stems from their preference for living in forests and wooded areas, though they can be found anywhere with lots of vegetation and a range of prey to choose from.
Like all rattlesnakes, timber rattlers are venomous. They possess long fangs which they use for injecting venom into their prey. The venom toxicity is comparable to other rattlesnakes, and poses a significant risk to humans. Fortunately, it doesn’t usually result in death, as long as medical intervention is sought quickly.
Timber rattlesnakes are pit vipers. They have a pair of small heat-sensing pit organs near their nostrils. These are used to detect infrared radiation in their environment, helping them to sense warm-blooded prey.
What Do Timber Rattlesnakes Look Like?
Like all rattlesnakes, they have distinguishing characteristics that make it easy to tell them apart from non-venomous snakes.
- They have a hard, segmented rattle on the end of their tail. When threatened, the timber rattlesnake will rapidly vibrate the rattle, causing a loud noise.
- They have vertical, slit-like pupils, like a cat.
- Their scales are heavily keeled (ridged). This helps them to get a better grip on their environment.
- Their heads are wide and triangular. This is because they have large venom glands on either side of the head.
One of the largest species of rattlesnake, timber rattlers usually reach around 3 to 5 feet in length. The largest known timber rattlesnake was just over 6 feet long. With regards to weight, timber rattlesnakes are heavy-bodied and quite thick. An adult will usually weigh between 1 and 5 pounds, though some may grow even heavier (up to 10lbs).
Timber rattlesnakes are also sometimes called banded rattlesnakes. Rather than having a diamond-shaped or blotched pattern, like most other North American rattlers, timber rattlesnakes are banded (horizontally striped).
Their background color is yellowish-brown, though it can appear more greyish in some specimens. The horizontal bands are dark brown and zigzag-shaped. The stripes can occasionally be broken, and there are sometimes small dots or blotches in between the stripes. At the tail, the pattern fades to solid black.
What Do Timber Rattlesnakes Eat?
90% of a timber rattlesnake’s diet is made up of small mammals. The remainder comprises birds, amphibians and other reptiles. This may include, among others:
- Frogs and toads
- And even other snakes.
Like most snakes, timber rattlers can’t chew their food, so they won’t attempt to eat anything that is significantly larger than them.
Timber rattlesnakes are ambush predators: they lie in wait for prey to approach, rather than actively pursuing them. They use their infrared heat-sensing pits to detect approaching animals, and estimate their size based on ground-borne vibrations. Once they decide to strike, they lunge at the prey and inject it with venom through their long fangs. They will then retreat and wait for the animal to die before swallowing it whole.
Where Do Timber Rattlesnakes Live?
Timber rattlesnakes are endemic to North America. They call the United States home, and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
Most rattlesnakes prefer hotter climates, and are therefore found in the southern United States. One of the most interesting facts about timber rattlesnakes is that it’s the most northerly distributed venomous snake in the U.S.
It is found as far north as New York in the east, and Minnesota in the west. Its range extends as far south as Texas and the northernmost third of Florida.
There used to be a small population of timber rattlesnakes living in Ontario, but nobody has spotted a timber rattlesnake in Canada since 1941. They have also been extirpated from Maine and Rhode Island.
Timber Rattlesnake Habitat
Unlike many other rattlesnakes, timber rattlesnakes are not desert-dwellers. As their name suggests, they are extremely fond of wooded areas. Their rusty brown coloration allows them to camouflage themselves well in forest environments, amongst dead leaves, dirt, and wood.
Though they are not aquatic animals, they can often be found in wet areas, such as swamps and the edges of riverbeds.
As well as wooded areas, timber rattlesnakes can also be found in rugged mountainous regions where there is abundant vegetation. They enjoy hiding in the gaps in between rocks, and hunting the small animals that can be found there.
Rarely, timber rattlesnakes also inhabit farmland and other rural populated areas. It’s rare to find a timber rattlesnake in an urban environment, but it has been documented. This is most likely to happen when its natural habitat has been cleared to make room for housing.
When Are Timber Rattlesnakes Most Active?
Most of the year round, timber rattlesnakes are diurnal – they hunt in the daytime and sleep at night. They bask in the sunshine during the morning, which helps them to warm up, as they are ectothermic (cold-blooded).
During the afternoon and early evening, much of their time is spent hunting (and mating, in the spring).
The only exception to the above is during the hot summer months. The summer sun is usually too hot for timber rattlesnakes to handle. So, during most of July and August, they switch their schedule and hunt during the night to prevent overheating.
In the winter, timber rattlesnakes brumate – the reptilian equivalent of hibernating. They gather in large communal dens, often with other kinds of pit viper, as well as nonvenomous snakes like rat snakes. This helps them to conserve body heat over the winter, and avoid freezing to death.
You’re most likely to see timber rattlesnakes during the spring, as this is mating season, and when they are most active.
Are Timber Rattlesnakes Aggressive?
Rattlesnakes, due to their menacing appearance and tail-rattling displays, have a reputation for being “aggressive.” However, no snake is truly aggressive towards humans. All behaviors which appear to be aggressive are actually defensive behaviors, triggered by fear.
No snake will initiate a confrontation with a human out of choice. Though rattlesnakes are venomous, we are much bigger than they are, and they see us as a potential predator.
When a timber rattlesnake is approached by a large mammal, such as a human, the first thing that it will do is try to escape. If it can’t get away in time, it will remain still and hope that it’s camouflaged, and that we can’t see it.
If the human continues to provoke or corner the rattlesnake, it may start up its defensive display.
Timber Rattlesnake Defensive Behavior
When threatened, the timber rattlesnake will:
- Rear up into the characteristic S-shaped threat display. This serves to make the snake appear bigger, as it raises the front half of its body off the ground.
- Hissing, produced by forcing air out of the glottis (entrance to the trachea), is a menacing sound designed to scare off potential predators.
- Rattle its tail. The tail rattle, made of keratinous segments, can produce a hollow buzzing sound when the snake vibrates it. It serves as a warning to the predator to stay away.
If, at this point, the predator backs away, the rattlesnake will leave it alone. A timber rattlesnake will never pursue or “chase” a predator after it attempts to leave.
However, if the predator continues to provoke it or corner it, the rattlesnake may strike. A tag from a timber rattlesnake’s long fangs is considered a medical emergency. They will not always inject venom – so-called “dry bites” have been reported – however, you should always leave it to medical professionals to deduce how much venom is in your system.
Is a Timber Rattlesnake Bite Deadly?
Like all highly venomous snakes in the U.S., a bite from a timber rattlesnake constitutes a medical emergency. They are one of the largest rattlesnakes in the U.S., and have long fangs and a high venom load.
The venom effects vary depending on what area the rattlesnake is from. According to research in BMC Genomics, there are four types of venom currently observed in timber rattlesnakes:
- Type A, found in southern timber rattlesnakes, is neurotoxic. It disrupts the signals from the brain to the body. Bite symptoms include visual disturbances, coordination problems and myokymia (involuntary twitching and spasms).
- Type B, found mainly in northern timber rattlesnakes causes massive internal bleeding (hemorrhaging).
- Type A + B venom has a combination of the above characteristics, and can be found where the two venom types converge.
- Type C venom, the rarest kind, is quite weak in comparison to the others.
A bite from a timber rattlesnake can be deadly. In April 2018, a 57-year-old man died when a timber rattlesnake bit him twice, according to the Wichita Eagle.
Fortunately, deaths from snakebite are very rare: there are less than five per year in the United States. This is because most U.S. hospitals stock CroFab, a rattlesnake antivenom which is effective at treating bites from almost all pit vipers.
Some people are at a higher risk from death from rattlesnake bites due to venom sensitivity. Just as it’s possible to be allergic to bee stings, people can also be allergic to rattlesnake venom. This means that a bite may cause anaphylactic shock, which can be extremely dangerous.
How Common Are Timber Rattlesnake Bites?
Timber rattlesnakes do not bite humans unless they feel they have no other choice. However, because they are so common across most of the U.S., timber rattlesnakes are responsible for a large proportion of snakebites. Around 7,000 – 8,000 people are bitten by a venomous snake in the U.S. each year, and timber rattlesnakes are the culprits of many of these.
When you’re out and about in an area known to have timber rattlesnakes, wear boots and long pants. Do not put your hands into holes, or anywhere that you can’t see. Be careful near leaf piles and log piles. Instead of stepping over logs, step on top of them so that you can see what’s on the other side.
If you do see a timber rattlesnake, do not approach it or try to kill it. Most bites happen when the snake is touched or provoked. Simply turn around and walk in the opposite direction.
How to Treat Timber Rattlesnake Bite
In the unlikely circumstance that a timber rattlesnake bites you, don’t panic. You’ll be fine as long as you stay calm, and receive proper medical treatment.
You can’t treat a timber rattlesnake bite at home. The only solution is antivenin (or antivenom), which must be administered at a hospital. Of course, there is a chance that the bite was dry, meaning no venom was injected. However, you’ll still need to be examined by a doctor to be sure.
If a timber rattlesnake bites you, follow these steps.
- Dial 911 for an ambulance.
- While you’re waiting for the ambulance to arrive, wash the wound out with soap and water.
- Remove any tight clothing, rings or other jewelry, as the affected limb may swell.
- If the wound is bleeding, apply a Band-Aid or loose dressing.
- Keep the bite wound below the heart, and do not apply a tourniquet.
- Do not suck the poison out, cut the wound, apply ice, or use a suction device.
Never attempt to catch or kill the snake that bit you, as it won’t help the medical staff. Just remember what the snake looked like so you can describe it to them.
Rattlesnake Bite Treatment in Hospital
Hospital staff will start closely monitoring you. They will address the wound itself, looking for signs of envenomation (such as swelling, bruising and discoloration of the skin).
Your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure will be monitored. You should describe any symptoms that you experience, as this will help the doctors to gauge how much venom the snake injected.
If the doctors determine that you have got venom in your system, they will administer antivenin. For a timber rattlesnake bite, this will be CroFab antivenin, developed mainly for rattlesnakes in the genus Crotalus.
They’ll administer this intravenously, and then monitor you closely, just in case you have an allergic reaction. According to the Journal of Emergencies, Trauma, and Shock, approximately 20% of people treated with antivenin develop a reaction to it.
The focus will then be on reducing your symptoms, treating your wound, and supporting you while you recover. Of the thousands of snakebites each year in the U.S., only around five result in death. This is almost always due to a lack of medical treatment.
Is the Timber Rattlesnake Endangered?
Timber rattlesnakes are not currently classified as endangered on a national or worldwide level. However, their populations are certainly declining, so it may not be long until they are.
They are classified as endangered or threatened in several states, including:
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New York
The main reasons for this population decline include:
- Habitat loss. Timber rattlesnakes mostly inhabit woodlands and wild areas, which are constantly getting destroyed in favor of housing and commercial developments.
- Hunting by humans. Some people are so afraid of rattlesnakes that they’ll go out of their way to kill them when they see them in the wild. This is not necessary, as rattlesnakes will leave you alone as long as you leave them alone. Most snakebite incidents occur as a direct result of trying to kill the snake.
- Disease. There are many diseases and parasites which get passed around in wild snake populations. In recent years, timber rattlesnakes have been particularly affected by snake fungal disease (SFD).
In states where timber rattlesnakes are endangered or threatened, it’s usually illegal to hunt, capture, kill or injure them. If the snake is on your property and is threatening your family, exceptions may be made. However, it’s always advisable to contact a pest control company, rather than trying to kill the snake yourself.
Snake Fungal Disease
Snake fungal disease (SFD) is a serious affliction which causes swelling and lesions on the face and in the throat and lungs. It is triggered by the fungus Ophidomyces. A similar affliction is caused by the fungus Chrysosporium, which is closely related, and can also affect other reptiles such as bearded dragons.
SFD has been around for a long time, but recently it has been reaching epidemic levels in certain populations of rattlesnake.
The main species affected is the massasauga rattlesnake. However, timber rattlers have been badly affected too, in states such as New Hampshire and Massachusetts, where the species is already endangered. So far, antifungal medications have had no effect.
Can Rattlesnakes Transmit Disease to Humans?
Reptile-specific diseases cannot affect humans. However, there are some kinds of bacteria, found on a snake’s body and in their feces, which can cause illness. Salmonella is the most common kind.
A human infected with salmonella could experience diarrhea, cramping, and fever. You should always wash your hands thoroughly after touching any reptile.
The risk of becoming infected with salmonella is very low when encountering wild snakes. It can only be transmitted through touch, so you’d have to touch a rattlesnake to pick up bacteria from it. And if you touched a rattlesnake, you’d most likely have more significant problems.
Why Should We Protect Timber Rattlesnakes?
As timber rattlesnakes can be deadly, you might be wondering why we should bother protecting them. Why would it be such a bad thing if a venomous snake species went extinct?
Firstly, because they are natural inhabitants of our country, they have just as much right to live here as any other animal does. Just because they are venomous does not mean they are evil.
Timber rattlesnakes are beneficial to humans. The majority of their diet is made up of rodents and other small mammals, which carry all sorts of diseases.
According to the University of Maryland, timber rattlesnakes directly contribute to the reduction of Lyme disease, which is spread by ticks that live on small mammals. Each timber rattlesnake can remove between 2,500 and 4,500 ticks per year.
So, the next time you see a timber rattlesnake in the wild, leave it alone. Admire it from a distance, and thank it for being a useful part of our ecosystem.