Discover the 2 Types of Rattlesnakes in Tennessee

Written by Kellianne Matthews
Published: September 27, 2022
© Joe McDonald/Shutterstock.com
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Landlocked in the southeastern United States, the state of Tennessee has a wide variety of natural features and biodiversity, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Appalachia Mountains, the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers, and the beautiful waterfalls and valleys of the Cumberland Plateau. Walking through its scenic deciduous forests may have you wondering what types of snakes also call this beautiful place home.

Well, there are 32 different species of snakes in Tennessee, all of which play an important role in keeping rodent populations in check and helping balance the state’s ecosystems. Only 4 of the 32 snake species in the state are venomous. If you’re a little worried about running into a snake, don’t worry—we’ll help you learn how to identify the 2 types of rattlesnakes in Tennessee, where they are found in the state, and how to stay safe while enjoying your time exploring the outdoors. So, let’s take a closer look at the 2 types of rattlesnakes in Tennessee!

1.      Timber Rattlesnake

Timber Rattlesnake coiled on ground.
The timber rattlesnake is extremely venomous, but they are not typically aggressive.

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Timber Rattlesnake
RangeAll of Tennessee
Length36-60 inches

As the largest venomous snake in Tennessee, the timber rattlesnake is pretty easy to identify. Not only is this snake the larger of the two types of rattlesnakes in the state, but it can be found all across Tennessee. Timber rattlesnakes are most common on south-facing hillsides or rocky outcroppings near mature and densely wooded forests. They often bask in the sun on rocky bluffs or ledges in these areas. However, they also frequent cane thickets, rural habitats, mountains, swamps, and wooded stream corridors throughout the summer.

Appearance

Timber rattlesnakes are large and have heavy, thick bodies that grow between 36-60 inches long. The ones you’ll see in Tennessee are usually gray, but occasionally they may be dark brown, black, brown, pink, tan, or yellow as well. Timber rattlesnakes have black chevron or zig-zag-shaped crossbands running down their backs that end in a distinctly black tail, just before their iconic keratin rattle. Most timber rattlesnakes in Tennessee will also have a rust-colored stripe running down the middle of their spines as well.

Timber rattlesnakes are pit vipers, so their heads are broad and triangular-shaped to accommodate their large venom glands. They have vertical pupils almost like cat eyes, and heat-sensing “pits” between their eyes and nostrils that help them to detect prey as well as predators. Their heads may vary in color, from yellow to light tan or gray, with a dark stripe running from each eye to the back of the jaw. Their bellies are light gray or tan and are usually sprinkled with darker colored speckles.

Behavior

Using their unique heat-sensing pits, timber rattlesnakes can lie in wait for long periods of time until their prey gets close enough to strike. These large snakes mostly eat small rodents like chipmunks, rats, mice, and squirrels, although on occasion they will also hunt lizards and birds. They have very large fangs and can inject a great amount of venom into a single bite. Their venom contains both neurotoxins and hemotoxins, making this snake a very dangerous opponent.

However, as is nature’s way, the dangerous venom and bite of a timber rattlesnake is balanced by its shy and nonaggressive nature. Unless it is completely cornered or being attacked or harassed, a timber rattlesnake will always try to flee from danger or hide using its camouflage coloring. When spotted, a timber rattlesnake will rattle its tail loudly for quite a while before ever attempting to strike. A timber rattlesnake only attacks as a last resort and does not always use all its venom at once. So, while it is of course a very dangerous snake that you should avoid, you can be sure that a timber rattlesnake will not go out of its way to do you harm.

2.      Western Pygmy Rattlesnake

The western pygmy rattlenake is one of only two types of rattlesnakes in Tennessee
Pygmy rattlesnakes are fairly rare in Tennessee

©Gerald A. DeBoer/Shutterstock.com

Western Pygmy Rattlesnake
RangeAlong western Highland Rim from Stewart County to southern border of Tennessee
Length15-20 inches

The smallest venomous snake in Tennessee is the western pygmy rattlesnake. It is not nearly as common as the timber rattlesnake, so not a lot of known about it in the state. Western pygmy rattlesnakes live from Stewart County along the western Highland Rim to the southern border of Tennessee, although the best place to see them is in the Land Between the Lakes, usually near water. Pygmy rattlesnakes are very rare in Tennessee and are protected by state laws as a Threatened species.

Sometimes referred to as “swamp rattlers,” pygmy rattlesnakes are great swimmers and prefer habitats that are close to water, like wetlands, moist fields, and flood plains. They can be seen in pine woods, glades, and rocky uplands on occasion as well. They are ambush hunters and eat lizards, amphibians, small snakes, and small rodents.

Appearance

Western pygmy rattlesnakes are also pit vipers, but they are much smaller than timber rattlesnakes, growing only 15-20 inches long. Their bodies are tan or gray, with dark oval or bar-shaped blotches that run down their backs and sides. Most pygmy rattlesnakes in Tennessee also have a rust or orange-brown stripe running along the middle of their spines as well. Their heads are broad with vertical pupils and heat-sensing pits, and a black stripe runs from each eye down to the corner of the snake’s mouth. Young pygmy rattlesnakes look a lot like adults, but the tips of their tails are yellow. Adult snakes have 6-8 dark rings at the end of their tails before their keratin rattle.

Behavior

Since pygmy rattlesnakes are so small, their rattle is not nearly as loud as a timber rattlesnake. In fact, if you are further than 3 feet away from one of these snakes, you likely will not hear their rattle at all! If you do hear a pygmy rattlesnake rattling, it will sound a lot like a buzzing insect. Like the timber rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnakes are shy and secretive. They prefer to stay hidden and avoid humans whenever possible.

Staying Safe from Rattlesnakes in Tennessee

Rattlesnakes in Tennessee usually only strike as a last resort
Rattlesnakes in Tennessee usually only strike as a last resort

©Joe McDonald/Shutterstock.com

Since most rattlesnake bites occur because a snake was accidentally stepped on, be sure to watch carefully where you step or where you put your hands when you are outside in Tennessee. If you go hiking, wear tall boots to protect your feet and legs from potential harm. If you see a snake, leave it alone! Do not try to move the snake or relocate it. If you leave a timber or pygmy rattlesnake alone, it will return the favor. If you want to explore the great outdoors with a canine companion, just make sure to keep your dog from sniffing in piles of leaves or under rocky areas and boulders.

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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 10 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.

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Sources
  1. Tennessee State Gov, Available here: https://www.tn.gov/twra/wildlife/reptiles/snakes/timber-rattlesnake.html
  2. Tennessee State Gov, Available here: https://www.tn.gov/twra/wildlife/reptiles/snakes/pygmy-rattlesnake.html