Situated in Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, Maryland is a beautiful state with a lot to offer, especially if you enjoy the outdoors. Of course, as any outdoor lover knows, there is always a chance of running into various wildlife, which often includes snakes.
While many people fear or even hate snakes, these animals are rarely dangerous, and are vital to keeping the ecosystems balanced in Maryland. In fact, of the 27 snake species and subspecies in Maryland, only 2 are significantly venomous and dangerous to humans, including the timber rattlesnake. Let’s take a closer look at Maryland’s only rattlesnake species and find out what these snakes look like, where they are found, how dangerous they are, and how to enjoy the outdoors peacefully and safely alongside them.
Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
|Range||Western Maryland, from Frederick to Garrett County|
One of only two venomous snakes in Maryland is the timber rattlesnake. These snakes can be found in forested upland areas, often basking in the sun on rocky outcrops or amongst the rocky debris of talus slopes. Although these snakes once covered western Maryland east to the Susquehanna River, today they only live from Frederick County to Garrett County. They are not quite as common as many other snakes in Maryland and are listed as vulnerable on Maryland’s watchlist.
Timber rattlesnakes are pit vipers with large triangular heads, vertical pupils, and heat-sensing pits between their eyes and nostrils. They are large snakes with big rattles at the end of their tails. Baby rattlesnakes are born with only one button or segment, with additional segments adding to the rattle each time the snake sheds.
What Do Timber Rattlesnakes Look Like?
With their thick, heavy bodies, timber rattlesnakes can appear daunting. These large snakes measure between 36-60 inches, although on rare occasions they may grow even longer. In Maryland there are two different color variations of timber rattlesnakes:
- A black phase timber rattlesnake has a black or dark brown body. Its head is black, and there are black, V-shaped chevron crossbands or blotches along its back.
- A yellow phase timber rattlesnake, on the other hand, has a yellow, brown, or gray body, with dark V-shaped chevron crossbands or blotches along its back.
Both variations have keeled, or ridged scales, giving these snakes a rough texture. When baby timber rattlesnakes are born, they are already venomous and dangerous, and look much like adult snakes. However, unlike Maryland’s other venomous pit viper species, the copperhead snake, baby timber rattlesnakes do not have yellow tail tips.
How Dangerous Are Timber Rattlesnakes?
Like their rattlesnake cousins, timber rattlesnakes are extremely venomous. These snakes have very big fangs that tuck neatly into their mouths. They can inject a lot of venom in a single bite because those fangs are attached to very big venom glands behind their eyes. Because of this, timber rattlesnakes are considered one of the most venomous snakes in the United States. However, nature seems to have balanced this out, because timber rattlesnakes are shy, secretive snakes that steer clear of humans as much as possible. They rarely venture near heavily populated human areas, and instead prefer to live in the untouched wilderness.
This means that you will most likely only see a timber rattlesnake in Maryland if you are hiking or camping in the western regions of the state. Maryland’s winters are much too cold for timber rattlesnakes, so they spend the colder months brumating in burrows, rock crevices, and tree stumps. These snakes are most active during the spring and can sometimes be seen basking in rocky areas as they soak up the sun’s warm rays. During the summer timber rattlesnakes become nocturnal, usually coming out only at night when it’s not quite so hot.
What To Do If You See a Timber Rattlesnake in Maryland
Although they are not super common, there is always a chance you may come across a timber rattlesnake in Maryland. Here are a few things to remember:
- Timber rattlesnakes do not always rattle their tails immediately. These timid snakes prefer to hide and wait for threats to pass, so keep an eye out to be safe.
- Wear long pants and boots while hiking. Watch carefully where you step, and never step on a pile of leaves or small rocks. Timber rattlesnakes often hide under such natural debris.
- If you see a snake, do not approach it. Give the snake a wide berth and stay out of its way.
- Do not try to move the snake, even if it is on a trail. If you are worried, call Maryland’s Department of Wildlife Services and they can help relocate the snake safely.
- If you or someone in your group is bitten by a snake, stay calm and get to a medical facility straight away.
Maryland’s Other Sneaky Snakes that Can Look Like Rattlesnakes
Hopefully you can now identify a timber rattlesnake in Maryland. However, the state is also home to a few other snakes that are often mistaken for rattlesnakes, even though these snakes are not dangerous. Here are a few examples:
Common Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon)
|Common Water Snake|
|Range||In and near slow-moving water in Maryland|
Also known as northern water snakes, common water snakes have heavy bodies with large heads. However, their heads are more rounded than that of a timber rattlesnake. Common water snakes grow between 24-42 inches on average with reddish-brown blotches or crossbands along the length of their bodies.
Younger snakes are typically brighter in color, while older snakes are darker, and it may be harder to see their patterns. These snakes live in and near slow-moving water, such as ponds, lakes, and along the edges of wetlands. Water snakes are not venomous, but they do bite easy, so keep an eye out when you are in these areas.
Northern Mole Kingsnake (Lampropeltis rhombomaculata)
|Northern Mole Kingsnake|
|Range||Western shore of the Coastal Plain in Maryland|
Unlike the timber rattlesnake or common water snake, the northern mole kingsnake has smooth, shiny scales. This snake grows between 30-40 inches in length, and is typically olive or brown in color, with brown or reddish-brown blotches on its back. One of the key characteristics that tells you it is not a rattlesnake, is that its head is narrow and rounded, rather than large and triangular. Northern mole kingsnakes in Maryland mostly live underground in abandoned animal burrows and in loamy or sandy soil on the western shore of the Coastal Plain.
Eastern Hog-Nosed Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)
|Eastern Hog-Nosed Snake|
|Range||All of Maryland, but more common on the Coastal Plain|
Unfortunately, the eastern hog-nosed snake is often persecuted because this clever snake not only looks similar to many rattlesnakes—it even acts like a rattlesnake! If it senses a threat nearby, an eastern hog-nosed snake often coils and raises part of its body off the ground, stretching its hood-like neck out like a cobra and hissing loudly. Some snakes may even vibrate the end of their tails, which can sound like rattling if the snake is sitting near leaves or debris. However, eastern hog-nosed snakes are harmless to humans and almost exclusively eat toads. They live all throughout the state of Maryland, although they are more common on the Coastal Plain.
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The photo featured at the top of this post is © Joe McDonald/Shutterstock.com
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- Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Available here: https://dnr.maryland.gov/wildlife/Pages/plants_wildlife/herps/Fieldguide_OrderSquamata.aspx
- Maryland Department of Natural Resources , Available here: https://dnr.maryland.gov/wildlife/Pages/plants_wildlife/herps/Squamata.aspx?SnakeName=Timber%20Rattlesnake