Timber Rattlesnake Recovery Program

Timber Rattlesnake Recovery Program

A timber rattlesnake on exhibit at RWP Zoo
A timber rattlesnake on exhibit at RWP Zoo

A seriously threatened species

 

The timber rattlesnake (crotalus horridus) plays an important predator role in deciduous forests. One of New England’s few venomous snake species, they generally prefer more thickly wooded habitats where the closed forest canopy keeps air temperatures cooler. In the summer, gravid (pregnant) females can be found on open, rocky ledges where temperatures are higher.  

These rattlers eat (and therefore manage populations of) small mammals, birds, and sometimes lizards, frogs and other snakes. In turn, theses snakes provide a source of food for hawks, bobcats, coyotes, and foxes, while black racers and king snakes will prey upon young timber rattlers. Human fear, however, is the greatest threat to the timber rattlesnake. Timber rattlesnake territories have declined from 31 states to 27, and populations have been completely extirpated from Maine, Rhode Island, central New Hampshire, most of Vermont, Long Island, and eastern and northern Ohio), and probably from Michigan and possibly from Delaware.

Currently, nine states (including all New England states) and the Province of Ontario offer the timber rattlesnake some form of protection, listing it as threatened or endangered, or having a restricted or no-take policy. Fifteen other states have general regulations that protect some or all herpetofauna [the class of animals that includes amphibians and reptiles] and therefore the timber rattlesnake by default.

This serious concern is multiplied by the fact that since 2009, timber rattlesnakes from separate populations in eastern, central and western Massachusetts have been found to have significant disease identified as fungal dermatitis.  This disease has been previously documented by scientists as a cause of morbidity and mortality in both captive and free-ranging viperidae [venomous viper taxon] snakes.