The Mountain State of West Virginia is home to at least 20 different species of snakes. However, only two of these snakes are venomous, including the only rattlesnake in West Virginia: the timber rattlesnake. Although they can be extremely dangerous, timber rattlesnakes are typically calm and rarely bite. In fact, according to the WVDNR, there have only been four deaths caused by timber rattlesnake bites since 1969. However, understanding more about the timber rattlesnake will help to avoid any additional fatalities. Keep reading to learn more about West Virginia’s only rattlesnake species, the timber rattlesnake.
Some Background on Rattlesnakes and Pit Vipers
Rattlesnakes get their name from the iconic rattle found at the end of their tail. This rattle is a collection of keratin rings or segments that builds up each time the snake sheds. Some snakes may only have one keratin “button”, while others will have several that form a distinctive rattle.
The size of a rattlesnake’s rattle, however, does not indicate its age. Rattlesnakes shed 2-3 times a year, which means they might add 2-3 new rings or segments on their rattles each year. In addition, these rattles are somewhat fragile and often break, so even an older rattlesnake could have a very small rattle.
These rattles act as an early warning system against potential dangers. When a human or large animal gets too close to a rattlesnake, for example, the snake may vibrate its tail rapidly, causing its keratin segments to knock together and make a rattling noise.
Rattlesnakes are also pit vipers, which means that they have venom and pit organs. There are large venom glands on either side of the snake’s head. Because of this, pit vipers have large triangular-shaped heads that are much wider than the snakes’ necks. In addition, pit vipers have a set of heat-sensing “pits” between their eyes and nostrils. The pits contain sensitive receptors that allow pit vipers to sense infrared waves and heat, helping them to locate prey as well as potential predators.
West Virginia’s Only Rattlesnake Species: The Timber Rattlesnake
The only rattlesnake species in West Virginia is the Timber Rattlesnake. These snakes live in rocky areas in the eastern corner and panhandle of the state, and down along the eastern and south-western regions. They often live in forested and mountain areas with rugged terrain. Male snakes commonly prefer deciduous woodlands that are dense and cool. Pregnant female snakes, on the other hand, often bask in the warmth of the sun along rocky edges.
|Range||West Virginia’s eastern corner, panhandle, eastern edge, south-western regions|
Timber rattlesnakes are important predators in West Virginia and help to keep the ecosystems balanced. These snakes also help to control populations of rodent and small mammals that often carry and transmit things like Lyme disease. Unfortunately, however, the population of timber rattlesnakes in West Virginia is steadily declining. Wildlife services and biologists are working together to better understand these snakes and manage their decreasing populations. So, if you happen to come across a rattlesnake in West Virginia, you can let them know by filling out an observation form.
What Do Timber Rattlesnakes Look Like?
The best way to identify a rattlesnake in West Virginia is to look for the rattle on the end of the snake’s tail. Since timber rattlesnakes are the only rattlesnakes in the state, this makes them pretty easy to identify. However, as mentioned earlier, not every rattlesnake will always have an obvious rattle, but they have many other defining characteristics as well.
Timber rattlesnakes have thick and heavy bodies with a dark tail, and typically measure between 36-48 inches in length. The colors and patterns on their scales, however, give them excellent camouflage, making them difficult to see if they are not moving. In West Virginia, there are two many color patterns of Timber Rattlesnakes:
- A Yellow Phase timber rattlesnake is usually gray, brown, or yellow, with dark brown or black crossbands along the length of its body.
- A Black Phase timber rattlesnake also has dark crossbands, but the background coloring is much darker. There may also be dark stippling patterns scattered across the snake’s body, and some snakes may appear almost entirely black.
Timber Rattlesnake Behavior
Timber rattlesnakes have a rather fearsome reputation. In fact, their scientific name, Crotalus horridus, means “dreadful rattle”. Not only are timber rattlesnakes intimidating because of their size, but they also have an extremely potent venom and large fangs. Because of this, they can inject large amounts of toxic venom with their bite, potentially making them the most dangerous in North America.
Fortunately, however, timber rattlesnakes are not at all aggressive. In general, these snakes are secretive and mostly want to be left alone. They will give lots of warning by rattling their tails and hissing before they ever attempt to strike. When humans are bitten by a timber rattlesnake, it is usually because they were trying to harm or kill the snake, capture it, or they stepped on it without realizing it was there.
In addition, timber rattlesnakes spend much of the year in brumation, when the weather is too cold for them. They emerge from their dens near the end of April but are lethargic for a while. During the spring and fall, male timber rattlesnakes are active as they search for female mates. Female timber rattlesnakes give live birth every 3-5 years, around the end of August through the middle of September. They can have between 4-14 babies that are already 12 inches long with plenty of venom, large fangs, and a small button at the end of their tails.
The Timber Rattlesnake: West Virginia’s Official State Reptile
In 2008 the Timber Rattlesnake became the official state reptile of West Virginia, with help from an eighth-grade class at Romney Middle School. The timber rattlesnake is a great symbol for West Virginia because it is present throughout the state. It also has a rich cultural history in West Virginia and the United States.
During the 18th century, the timber rattlesnake was an important symbol for American colonists. Benjamin Franklin began using allusions and images of the snake in his publications and political cartoons. During the American Revolution, an image of a timber rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike was used as a symbol of independence and a new identity for the Thirteen Colonies. They used to warn Great Britain not to ignore the rights and freedoms of its American subjects. The timber rattlesnake was often depicted on a yellow background with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” below it. Many soldiers painted it on their drums, and later it was put on the Gadsden Flag.
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