Discover New Jersey’s Only Rattlesnake

Written by Kellianne Matthews
Published: September 28, 2022
© Joe McDonald/Shutterstock.com
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Think You Know Snakes?

You might not realize it, but there are actually tons of snakes in New Jersey if you know where to find them. In fact, many even live in cities and other urban areas. Most of the snakes in New Jersey are completely harmless to humans, but there are a few rare venomous snakes in the state, including just one type of rattlesnake. Let’s take a closer look at New Jersey’s only rattlesnake species and see where it is found, what it looks like, and why it is so rare in the Garden State.

Timber Rattlesnake

Timber Rattlesnake
RangeSmall, isolated populations in northern, central, and southern New Jersey
Length36-72 inches

Although it once lived all across the state, today the timber rattlesnake is rare in New Jersey. It is most common in the northern and central regions of the state, but there are also small, isolated populations in the southern region as well. Timber rattlesnakes are the most endangered species in New Jersey and are tragically persecuted by humans who both kill and collect them illegally. Because of this, timber rattlesnakes in New Jersey are protected by state laws. People can help conserve the timber rattlesnake by reducing habitat destruction and human persecution.

In addition to human threats, timber rattlesnakes in New Jersey also suffer from human encroachment, habitat destruction, and fungal disease. These rattlesnakes are shy and reclusive animals that prefer to avoid contact with humans, living in rugged and remote areas throughout the state. In New Jersey, they primarily live in forests and wooded areas with rocky outcroppings. They prefer areas with thick brush and dense trees where there is a lot of cover, as well as sunny rocky areas for basking. This helps them to regulate their body temperature and stay out of sight from any lurking and hungry predators. Some of the timber rattlesnake’s predators include other snakes, birds of prey, and mammals.

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Iowa Snakes - Timber Rattlesnake
Timber Rattlesnake can grow to be up to six feet long, with black tails and a large rattle on the end to warn off predators.

©Eric Isselee/Shutterstock.com

Appearance

There are two primary colorations of timber rattlesnakes in New Jersey: brown or yellow with a light-colored head, and gray or black with a dark-colored head. Both color phases have zigzag- or diamond-shaped black bands on their backs. These snakes can grow to be up to six feet long, with black tails and a large rattle on the end to warn off predators. Their rattles are made of keratin that builds up into segments each time the snake sheds. When the snake feels threatened, it will vibrate the end of its tail, causing these interlocking rings to rattle and make a loud buzzing sound.

Timber rattlesnakes are large pit vipers with broad, triangular-shaped heads and heat-sensing pits on their faces. They use their pit organs to locate prey and then lie in wait until the animal gets close enough to catch. The timber rattlesnakes living in New Jersey eat small mammals such as mice and rats, as well as birds and some reptiles.

Venom

The timber rattlesnake is a highly venomous snake that can be very dangerous to humans. Its neurotoxic venom can cause serious health problems, including tissue damage, organ failure, paralysis, and even death.

However, these snakes are also very shy and reclusive, and will only attack if they feel threatened. Even then a timber rattlesnake may choose to “dry bite”, which means that it does not inject any venom into its bite. Timber rattlesnakes are not aggressive and would rather hide, flee, or rattle loudly as a warning. Striking only occurs as a last resort if the snake is harassed or cornered.

Rattlesnakes While HIking - Timber Rattlesnake
The timber rattlesnake is a highly venomous snake that can be very dangerous to humans.

©Joe McDonald/Shutterstock.com

What To Do If You See a Timber Rattlesnake in New Jersey

If you encounter a rattlesnake or hear a rattling sound, slowly back away and give the snake at least 10-15 feet of space. Do not attempt to capture or kill it. Timber rattlesnakes are venomous, but they are usually calm. If they cannot hide, they will rattle a loud warning to try to scare off any threats. Most timber rattlesnake bites happen only because the snake was either purposefully harassed or someone accidentally stepped on it! If by chance you are bitten by a rattlesnake, call 911 and seek medical attention immediately.

Helping Timber Rattlesnakes in New Jersey

Because of their rarity, the Division of Fish & Wildlife in New Jersey asks that if you see a timber rattlesnake in the state, you stay at least 15 feet away from it. If you can do so safely, please take a picture of the snake. In addition, please submit a Rare Wildlife Sighting Report Form to help researchers continue to track and help these endangered snakes.

Close up of a Timber Rattlesnake eye
Because of their rarity, the Division of Fish & Wildlife in New Jersey asks that if you see a timber rattlesnake in the state, you stay at least 15 feet away from it.

©Scott Delony/Shutterstock.com

Snakes Commonly Confused with Rattlesnakes in New Jersey

While there is just one type of rattlesnake living in New Jersey and it is quite rare, there are several other harmless snakes that cause quite a scare because they are often mistaken for a timber rattlesnake. Here are just a few examples:

Northern Pine Snake

Northern Pine Snake
RangePine Barrens of New Jersey
Length48-100 inches

Another threatened species in New Jersey, the northern pine snake lives in the Pine Barrens of the state. It burrows underground in sandy habitats, where it shelters from the elements and lays its eggs. It is a fairly large snake with a gray, white, or cream-colored body and dark blotches along its back. Although this snake is harmless to humans, when it feels threatened it will defend itself with passion, hissing and delivering painful bites if you try to pick it up.

Northern pine snake in straw
The spots on a pine snake are generally darker towards the head and lighter towards the tail.

©Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock.com

Black Rat Snake

Black Rat Snake
RangeAll of New Jersey
Length34-101 inches

The largest snake in New Jersey is the black rat snake, measuring 34-101 inches long. These snakes are fairly common throughout the state, usually in suburban or rural areas. Adult snakes are black with white chins and throats, and either a pale yellow or white belly. Juvenile black rat snakes, however, are very commonly mistaken for timber rattlesnakes, since they are gray with dark blotches. Black rat snakes are excellent climbers and are often seen high up in rock crevices or resting in trees.

The Black Eastern Rat Snake in its habitat
The Alleghany Rat Snake, or Eastern Rat Snake, can grow up to 6 feet in length.

©Barry Blackburn/Shutterstock.com

Eastern Hognose Snake

Eastern Hognose SnakeRangeAll of New JerseyLength20-45 1/2 inches long

Although they are rarely encountered in most parts of New Jersey, eastern hognose snakes live throughout the state and commonly cause fear in humans because of their appearance and behavior. However, these snakes are completely harmless, and only act threatening. Eastern hognose snakes are usually smaller than timber rattlesnakes, growing between 20-45 ½ inches long. These snakes come in a wide variety of different colors and patterns, and some snakes may have patterning similar to a timber rattlesnake. In addition, when eastern hognose snakes feel threatened, they stretch their necks out wide like a cobra and hiss loudly, often pretending to strike in order to scare away the threat.

When eastern hognose snakes feel threatened, they stretch their necks out wide like a cobra and hiss loudly.

©IHX/Shutterstock.com

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The Featured Image

A Timber Rattlesnake striking prey
Timber Rattlesnakes strike quickly
© Joe McDonald/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

I have been a professional writer for eight years with a particular focus on nature, wildlife, anthrozoology, and human-animal relationships. My areas of interest include human-animal studies, ecocriticism, vulnerable species, pets, and animal behavior. I graduated from Brigham Young University with a master’s degree in Comparative Studies, focusing on the relationship between humanity and the natural world. In my spare time, I enjoy exploring the outdoors, watching movies, reading, creating art, and caring for my pets. Nothing brings me greater joy than a day spent in the company of animals.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is the one type of rattlesnake in New Jersey?

Although it once lived all across the state, today the timber rattlesnake is rare in New Jersey. It is most common in the northern and central regions of the state, but there are also small, isolated populations in the southern region as well. Timber rattlesnakes are the most endangered species in New Jersey and are tragically persecuted by humans who both kill and collect them illegally.

What snakes are mistaken for a timber rattlesnake?

The Eastern Hognose, Black Rat and Northern Pine snakes are often confused for Timber Rattlesnakes.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Wildlife Conservation Society / Paré, J.A.;Conley, K.J.;Boyer, D.M,;Schantz, K.A., Available here: https://programs.wcs.org/databases/doi/ctl/view/mid/33065/pubid/PUB15659.aspx
  2. NJ.gov, Available here: https://www.nj.gov/dep/fgw/ensp/pdf/snake_broch.pdf
  3. New Jersey Fish and Wildlife, Available here: https://dep.nj.gov/njfw/wildlife/endangered-and-threatened-species/
  4. New Jersey Fish and Wildlife, Available here: https://dep.nj.gov/njfw/conservation/timber-rattlesnake-conservation/