Monday, June 25, 2012

Timber Rattlesnake Research Continues

The research continues on the farm my husbands family owns. This year so far 8 timber rattlesnakes (Crotlus horridus) have been found.

One evening a friend of mine joined me to search for these elusive snakes. We also had her niece (age 7) and a young friend from my 4H Herpetology group named Gage (age 10) with us. After a couple of hours and overturning hundreds of rocks it was nearing dark and all we had to show for ourselves was a couple of ringneck snakes. We made the decision to head back to the car and leave as we were losing light. We walked by a large pile of limestone rocks and I poked my stick under one particularly large rock and heard the tell-tale sound of a rattlesnake buzzing its rattle. We both got excited as I attempted to turn the rock over with my snake stick. It became apparent that this was not going to happen, as the rock was far too heavy. We desperately wanted to see this snake that was hiding oh so close yet seemingly oh so far away. I told the kids to step back and announced I was going to flip this rock by hand. Now normally I would not even consider doing something like this, but I felt certain it could be done safely in this instance. The rock was 5 or 6 inches thick and had a sort of lip molded into it. I decided if I grabbed that lip and lifted I would not have to actually put my hand directly "under" the rock. I carefully lifted this rock, it proved heavier than I originally thought and I had to seriously put my back into it. Cindy excitedly announces that there were TWO rattlesnakes under the rock. I got so excited I nearly pee'd my pants and dropped the rock. Fortunately I was able to control my excited emotions and kept a firm hold on the rock and then gently let it fall back towards me. Sure enough there sat two gorgeous timber rattlesnakes, coiled up next to each other. Much debate took place about whether it was a male and female, or if they were same sex and just happened to be there together.

Gage and Cindy's niece were both as excited as we were about seeing these snakes. After making sure both children were a safe distance from the snake, we had to decide what to do. Should be let the snakes go, or should we capture them so we could check them for P.I.T. tags? The decision was made to capture them. Cindy and her niece returned to the car to retrieve the bagger, and I remained with Gage and kept an eye on the snakes. Several minutes after Cindy left, one of the snakes became antsy and decided to depart. I simply couldn't let it get away, so I managed to keep it there with the snake stick. I did not want to pin it down and risk hurting it, so I just had to keep guiding it back towards the other one with the tip of the stick. Finally Cindy returned and coaxing them into the bag went off without a hitch. We carried the bag back to the shed and found a large blue barrel to put the snakes in. It took us awhile to get them out of the bag and into the barrel, but we finally managed to get the job done. The fact that they came flying at a high rate of speed out of the bag, right at my chest and then when gravity kicked in they dropped straight down into the barrel did nothing to ease my frazzled nerves at handling such a highly venomous snake. I breathed a sigh of relief, and was thankful that the snakes didn't actually hit me in the chest. Once they were safely contained, we had to laugh, and joke about how inept we had to have appeared.

We contacted Dr. Mills our local herpetologist, and the one who has been helping me document the rattlesnakes on our farm. We made arrangements to meet early in the morning to document the data from these two snakes. Gage gained permission to miss school so he could take part in this educational activity.

Gage and I met Dr. Mills at 8:00AM and got started immediately with getting data from the snakes. Dr. Mills and I measured, weighed, and sexed both snakes and discovered that these two snakes were both females and neither one had been previously P.I.T. tagged. So these were two new snakes. We currently have 5 females and one male tagged on this farm. The first female was 2'8" and the second was 3'. Both seemed fat and healthy and most likely of breeding condition.

Gage was our data-meister and recorded all the numbers we threw at him. Gage absolutely loves herps. and has a real passion and genuine interest in learning about them.

Once all the data was recorded we returned both snakes back to the rock where they were found and released them. The snake stick is posed on the rock to show you the size of the rock they were under.
I am so thrilled that the population seems to be doing well at the location.


  1. Hi Shelly,

    I enjoy reading your blogs- I always learn something new! My husband and I were hiking last week at Hilda Young Conservation area (about 20 miles west of St. Louis)when we came across a large timber rattler. He (or she) was stretched out across the trail, soaking up the afternoon sun. He allowed us to snap a few pictures, then calmly slithered away into the tall grass. I was quite surprised to find a timber rattler in a field; I'd thought they only inhabited rocky, glade-like areas. I wanted to post a picture for you, but I guess the comment section won't allow it. Oh well, keep up the good work!

  2. Shelly,
    That's great you have kids involved with your rattlesnake project! Keep an eye on that area because if pregnant females are together this time of year, they may nest nearby :-)

  3. Wow! I'm so impressed that you are monitoring the population of timber rattlesnakes on your farm. You are a true citizen scientist! We need more people like you in the world that support snake conservation and research instead of just blindly killing these wonderful creatures. Keep up the good work.

  4. Thank you all so much for your kind thoughts and comments. I feel blessed to have access to a farm that is home to such amazing creatures. This project started out with the idea in mind to get my in-laws to stop killing the rattlesnakes on this farm. It is amazing what education will do. Dr. Mills and I have spent a fair amount of time with my in-laws and getting them involved in the work. They are learning first had how docile this species and how vital they are to the ecosystems where they occur. Now, instead of killing them, they call me when they find one so I can photograph it or capture it for data. Melissa I have no idea how to locate a nesting site. I have suspicions about where they hibernate, but no clue about nesting. We are hoping to radio tag some, but we are still trying to come up with the money for the tags.

  5. The rattlers in the picture look like they are about ready to shed - or is that just the lighting? Good job on monitoring. Nice to read a blog where someone is not expressing loathing and unwarranted fears about rattlers.

  6. You have come to the right place, Alligator, very few people are as passionate about rattlesnake conservation and research as Shelly is. She spends most of her time doing everything she can to educate people about the benefits that rattlesnakes, as well as snakes in general, provide to our local ecosystems. As The Wandering Herpetologist said, she is a true citizen scientist.

    1. AWWWW Bill thanks for your kind comments. I just wish this weather would let up so i could go search for these snakes. With temps over 100 degrees for a month now and little rain I am afraid the snakes have been few and far between lately.