Timber Rattlesnake exhibit to open at Roger Williams Park Zoo

Timber Rattlesnake exhibit to open at Roger Williams Park Zoo

First venomous snake exhibit for the Zoo; the only one in Rhode Island.


Providence, RI – Three timber rattlesnakes have taken up residence at the new Snake Den at Roger Williams Park Zoo, just in time for holiday weekend visitors. This exhibit of a venomous snake species is believed to be a first for the Zoo and the only current exhibit of its kind in the state. Situated in the upper Zoo next to the Marco Polo Plaza, it will open to the public on Saturday.

These snakes will serve as ambassadors for a regional wildlife conservation project that is housed, in part, at the Zoo. Lou Perrotti, the RWP Zoo Conservation Program Director, said he is excited to provide visitors with the opportunity to see this species up close. “There are many people who are fascinated by snakes, and especially venomous snakes. Our aim is to dispel the unwarranted fear that has led to the extirpation of the timber rattlesnake in much of New England. They play an important role our New England habitat. ”

While the shy timber rattlesnake historically dwelt in 31 states ranging from southern Maine to northern Florida, and west to Minnesota and eastern Texas, the species now can be found in only 27. The timber rattlesnake is an important small predator, helping to manage rodent populations while also providing a food source for animals like hawks, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, racer and king snakes that prey on the young rattlesnakes.  Humans are the major threat to the adult timber rattlesnake population. 

Fun facts about timber rattlesnakes:

  • The rattle is made of loosely attached horny segments made of keratin, like human
    fingernails. A new segment is added each time the snake sheds. When vibrated, the rattle


makes the buzzing sound characteristic of a disturbed rattlesnake.

  • If they have the option, they will retreat, however if they are cornered, they will coil, raise their head up, rattle and strike.
  • They are generally active mid-April to late September. In spring and fall, they are more active in the daylight. In summer, they shift to more crepuscular or nocturnal behavior.
  • During winter, dozens of timber rattlers may congregate together in a den to hibernate below the frost line in association with copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), other snakes, and skinks (Eumeces spp.). Dens are generally on open, steep, south facing slopes with rock fissures or talus surrounded by hardwood forests.
  • Humans are the major threat to the adult timber rattlesnake population both directly from indiscriminate killing and collecting, and indirectly through habitat loss and road mortality.
  • They are slow breeders, with females giving birth only once every three to five years.  They are ovoviviparous, meaning the egg remains inside the mother, with the young born live, usually in groups of 6-10.
  • A group of rattlesnakes is called a rhumba.

The Conservation Project

In 2011, RWP Zoo staff members joined New England biologists and conservationists in a collaborative regional effort created to save the remaining timber rattlesnake populations. They believe that a protected genetic reservoir from the most threatened populations in the northeast should be established in captivity until a solid conservation initiative develops; this involves head starting and possibly captive reproduction in the future as well as addressing serious emerging skin disease problem.

In 2012, Disney’s Animal Kingdom provided $6,000 for a pilot program to help develop the protocols that would be needed for a larger scale project. Then the partners received an $81,300 Northeast Regional Conservation Needs Grant in early 2013 for the assessment and evaluation of the prevalence of fungal dermatitis in New England timber rattlesnake populations.

Wildlife disease studies in natural populations are becoming increasingly important in aiding wildlife management and conservation.  Many infectious agents pose a threat to wildlife populations, and there is a growing body of literature documenting disease outbreaks which have affected populations and even extirpated species.  The grant monies will be used to complete a comprehensive evaluation and a baseline health assessment of multiple New England populations as well as to provide scientific support for future policy and wildlife management decisions for this species.  The study will provide evidence of the extent of fungal dermatitis among multiple rattlesnake populations and evaluate potential underlying stressors or factors predisposing the species to fungal disease.  The partners will use the data gathered to try to determine whether the fungal disease seen is a primary pathogen or a secondary opportunistic invader. They also will look for insight as to whether these are isolated cases or if they are indicative of wider health concerns within timber rattlesnake populations and will produce a geographical map of fungal infections identified in New England populations.  Additionally, researchers will evaluate the presence of heavy metals and toxins as potential immune system stressors thus utilizing the timber rattlesnake as an indicator of potential environmental pollutants as well as overall ecosystem health.

RWP Zoo staff members conduct biopsies and blood work for the project and work with females and neonates [newborns] for head starting.


Roger Williams Park Zoo, one of the oldest in the nation, is Rhode Island’s number one outdoor family and tourist attraction and is also a leader in conservation efforts undertaken by a zoo of its size. The Zoo has received numerous awards for conservation work done both around the globe and in local habitats as well, caring for species that, without human intervention, would face certain extinction.  Roger Williams Park Zoo is supported and maintained by the Rhode Island Zoological Society and is owned by the City of Providence.