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Timber Rattlesnakes: after 40 years, what have we learned?

Brown, William S.

Department of Biology (emeritus)

Skidmore College

Saratoga Springs, NY USA

A four-decade career studying Crotalus horridus in the field at a single locality in northeastern New York allows me to cautiously suggest some successes in quantifying this species’ life history. In recent years, researchers and field biologists who work on this species (a “quirky subculture”) have met in annual gatherings to exchange experiences, thus knitting together a social network of those with an enduring interest in the snake’s welfare. Importantly, since 1983 the State of New York lists the species as “threatened” allowing a spread of public knowledge of Timber Rattlesnakes’ legal protection. This status permits field biologists to proceed with a degree of confidence that their work will not be grossly disturbed by factors such as bounty hunting or commercial collecting, activities that were formerly widespread. Described as potentially “charismatic” when viewed undisturbed in nature but “problematic” phylogenetically, I will summarize prominent aspects of the snake’s local distribution and natural history, focusing on the following topics: (1) the regional setting and dens; (2) shelter-rock structural requirements; (3) methods employed in measuring and marking individuals; (4) examples of bad things (and some good things) that have happened to Timber Rattlesnakes; (5) aspects of behavior, e.g., warnings by rattling or occasional inflationary hissing; silently gliding under shelter when discovered; gregarious tendencies of newborns and gravid females; and the so-called “spook factor” wherein the snakes become intimidated and respond later by making themselves scarce; (6) observations of falling prey to predators; and (7) life history attributes such as extended longevity, low-frequency reproduction, and high adult survival. Additional topics may include shedding and aging, intraspecific reproductive comparisons, and feeding and energetics. Finally, in “Rays of Hope” I will provide several optimistic examples of conservation including reversals of negative attitudes concerning this species, and efforts to save its remaining populations.