Monday, August 20, 2012

Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus

Yesterday was the annual "Great Amorpha Borer Expedition". This has become an annual quest to find what is inarguably the world's most handsome beetle, and a beetle that seems to be quite rare in these parts. And it proved to be rare indeed yesterday - we, for the first time in the history of these expeditions, could not find any of the animals. But our failure may have been operator error - based on the condition of the beetles' favorite nectar plants, we may have been about a week too early.

But as I tell all GABE participants, they'll not despair if we choke on the beetle. These expeditions turn into natural history free-for-alls on a Grand Scale, and yesterday was no exception. There were scads of interesting finds, and I made 1,736 images during my 19-hour day. Of course, I only ended up keeping about 1/20th of that number but some of the keepers are doozies and of things one doesn't often get to see. I'll be tossing some of that stuff out here over the coming week, but thought I'd start with the King of Doozies.

We had quite a crew yesterday. In addition to your narrator, there was John Howard and his brother Vince, Tricia West and her cousin Jamie, Derek Hennen, Rachel Shoop, Mary Ann Barnett, Cheryl Harner, and Dave and Laura Hughes. And of course and oh yes - the inimitable Jenny Richards.

Jenny is the park naturalist for Shawnee State Park, and we began our beetle search on park property. Jenny is interested in protecting the rare Amorpha beetle, and joined us for the search. We were excited to learn that she had just captured an animal far larger than our quest beetle, and she offered to show it to us. So, after the morning's festivities had concluded, we headed off to Jenny's quarters at the state park.

That's Jenny, above, with the object of our attentions. WARNING: if you are one of those weird ophidiophobes - snake-haters - it's best you turn back now.

Not everyone has such a sign on their office door, but you might consider it - rattlesnake warning signs are effective at keeping away unwanted visitors. I don't believe Jenny is in the habit of keeping snakes in her office, but this was an emergency circumstance. Shawnee State Park and the surrounding forest still harbor a decent number of timber rattlesnakes; about the only place in Ohio that still does. Every now and again, a potential human-snake conflict can arise, and the snake featured in this post was one of those situations. It turned up in a high people-use area, and had to be relocated. Hence the temporary storage. The snake will be released soon into a much more favorable place.

What a beauty! This timber rattlesnake is a whopper, measuring nearly four feet in length and weighing just over three-and-half pounds. It is also of the "yellow" form, which is an especially showy color variety. I think these lighter-colored animals are more striking (bad pun) than the darker phase.

It's hard to get a thorough appreciation of the charisma of one of these beasts without seeing it up close and personal. And the big rattlesnakes, such as this one, are impressive by any standard. This animal rivaled the largest one that I've ever seen, which was nearly identical in proportions. We found that one several years ago out in the forest, crossing a road. It was probably one of 12-15 timber rattlesnakes that I've had the pleasure of seeing in the wild, and like the others, it was thoroughly docile and didn't even rattle its tail. That's not to say that one should take liberties with these snakes - a fool could quickly find himself bitten.

Timber rattlesnakes are generally non-aggessive, and hard to find. The average person will never run across one, and I'm sure that's just fine to the average person. Even if you did, chances are the snake would either freeze or just slip away - they don't want to waste perfectly good venom on a nonfood item such as a person.

Your narrator provides a size scale to the timber rattlesnake as he VERY CAREFULLY ( and gently, I might add) works the animal back into its holding cage with a snake stick.

This is a face that only a herpetologist could love; indeed, the scientific epithet horridus suggests what the namer of the animal thought of it. Scaly and inscrutable, the snake uses its tongue to test the airs around it. In this tight shot, we can see the heat sensitive pit in front of the eye. Via that organ, the snake can detect very minor temperature changes; handy when gauging the distance to your warm furry mammalian prey. In pit vipers such as this rattlesnake, the "pits" connect to a membrane filled with highly sensitive receptors that allow the snake to sense the location of animals to a fine degree and launch unerring strikes if need be.

The typical hunting modus operandi of a timber rattlesnake is to lie quietly in wait, curled in the camouflaging leaf litter of the forest floor. When a chipmunk (major prey item), squirrel, or possibly a bird or other reptile wanders into range, the snake explodes with an astonishingly rapid and accurate strike.

When bothered, a rattlesnake will let you know by rapidly vibrating its rattler. It'll offer plenty of warning, and the loud rattle of an annoyed snake, coupled with its mild manner, are in part why there are so few bites of people. Contrary to some claims, the number of rattles on a timber rattlesnake's rattler does not accurately indicate the snake's age. In general, the snakes shed their skin eight times or so in their first four years of life, gaining a rattle segment with each shed. After that, it'll shed annually. But rattles often break off, further compounding the difficulty of aging snakes by the rattles.


Our snake was a bit peeved by the attention, and let us know by rattling its tail, as seen in this video. However, true to general form, it never once struck. Of course, no one got anywhere near striking distance.

It's probably easy to dislike a reptile such as a timber rattlesnake. They aren't particularly pretty, at least in most people's estimation, and they're poisonous. There's no denying that a mishandled timber rattlesnake could put a serious hurt on a person. But lots of things, both floral and faunal, are poisonous and many creatures aren't going to win any beauty pageants. Such factors shouldn't have any bearing on whether we decide to let them live. Timber rattlesnakes are an especially dramatic example of Ohio's wilderness heritage, and each and every remaining animal should be protected. The snake, like so many other of Ohio's mega-fauna, has declined TREMENDOUSLY from pre-settlement days. I for one am glad to know that we've managed to protect some wild areas large enough in scale to still support populations of big forest animals like this timber rattlesnake.


Anonymous said...

I highly recommend the book "Landscape with Reptile: Rattlesnakes in an Urban World" (Author's name escapes me, I'll check my shelf later.)
It centers on the remnant population of Timber Rattlers in the Blue Hills outside of Boston, but is also a history of america's turbulent relationship with rattlesnakes and a great natural history of this awesome wild creature.

Jim McCormac said...

That sounds like a good read - thanks for letting us know, Brian!

Derek Hennen said...

Those are some beautiful scales, wow! I'm sad we had to live early and miss the snake, but thanks for sharing. It's great to know that we still have some rattlesnakes in Ohio.

rebecca said...

Love it! The door sign reminds me of the one my boss made back in Georgia when we caught a baby eastern diamondback and stowed it in a rubbermaid container temporarily: