Description: Timber rattlesnakes, which are called canebrake rattlesnake in the Coastal Plain of the Southeast, are large, heavy bodied snakes with the characteristic rattles on the end of the tail. Adults range from 30-60 in (76-152 cm) with the record being more than 6 feet (183 cm) long. Canebrakes are usually gray and may even have a pink hue and a pinkish, yellow, orange, or brown stripe running the length of the back. Timber rattlers are typically more brown or yellowish and may even be black. Both forms have solid black tails that appear almost velvet and black chevrons on the back and sides with the point of the (V) pointing forward. The babies are miniatures of the adults but are usually a lighter gray and have only a single button (rattle) on the tip of the tail at birth. Males get larger than females.
Range and Habitat: Timber and canebrake rattlesnakes have a wide distribution in the eastern United States but the species is absent from most of Florida. This snake occurs in a wide variety of terrestrial habitat including lowland cane thickets, high areas around swamps and river floodplains, hardwood and pine forests, mountainous areas, and rural habitats in farming areas. They typically become reduced in numbers in highly urbanized or areas of housing development.
Habits: Timber and canebrake rattlesnakes become active above ground by late spring and can be seen periodically until the onset of cold weather in late fall. Canebrakes are active during both day and night but spend the majority of their time coiled in ambush positions ready to capture prey.
These rattlesnakes hibernate during cold weather. Timber rattlers congregate in dens in mountainous areas whereas canebrakes often overwinter alone in stump holes or beneath ground cover. They eat mostly small rodents when young, and large individuals kill and eat squirrels and rabbits. Females usually do not reach maturity until at least 5 years old and typically wait at least 2 or 3 years between litters. The live young are born in late summer or early fall around the time that courtship and mating occurs. Large male canebrake rattlesnakes are often seen in late summer or early fall in search of mates. Although reaching large sizes, most individuals are docile when encountered in the wild and often will remain coiled or stretched out without moving. If threatened, however, they will not hesitate to deliver a serious bite.
Conservation Status: Timber and canebrake rattlesnakes are not protected in the southern states and the species is not considered to be in serious danger, but populations are steadily decreasing over the geographic range, primarily due to habitat destruction and other human activities. In some areas of the northeast timber rattlesnakes have declined dramatically and they are protected in several northern states. Road construction that crosses the migratory range of this species also posses a threat as some individuals move long distances and commonly become road kill. Additionally, communal denning of timber rattlesnakes makes them particularly vulnerable to persecution by humans.
Andrews, K. M. and J. W. Gibbons. 2005. How do highways influence snake movement? Behavioral responses to roads and vehicles. Copeia 2005: 771-781.
Gibbons, J. W. 1972. Reproduction, growth and sexual dimorphism in the canebrake rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus atricaudatus). Copeia 1972: 222-226.
Account Author: Rebecca Taylor - edited by J. W. Gibbons