The timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) is one of only nine venomous snake species and subspecies found in Oklahoma.
Like other snakes in the family Viperidae, the timber rattlesnake is a pit viper. Pit vipers are unique among snakes because they have pit organs located between the nostrils and eyes that are sensitive to heat and can detect even small changes in radiant energy. Timber rattlesnakes like all pit vipers have relatively long hollow fangs. Similar to the action of a switch-blade, the fangs flick out when the mouth is opened. The fangs retract back, folding back against the roof of the mouth when their mouth is closed.
Timber rattlesnakes are extremely cryptic, making them perfect ambush predators. Their sense of smell allows them to locate trails commonly used by prey like mice and rabbits. Perfectly camouflaged, they wait for prey to come into striking distance. Once injected with the snake’s venom, the animal dies quickly. After striking its prey, the snake uses its sense of smell and heat sensing pit organs to track the animal. When the animal has been overcome by the poison the snake will swallow it whole. Snakes are able to swallow prey much bigger than themselves in a fascinating way. It is commonly believed that snakes can detach their jaws but that isn’t the case. Their jaws are actually very flexible and remain attached. The snake begins slowly engulfing its prey head first. The two lower jaws move independently of one another and help “walk” the snake’s skull over its meal.
Timber rattlesnake’s life history and characteristics vary geographically. In southern portions of their range, timber rattlesnakes hibernate for a shorter time, grow more quickly and reproduce at an earlier age than timber rattlesnakes in northern portions of their range. Mating takes place between late July and early October, depending on their location. Like other pit vipers, timber rattlesnakes do not lay eggs. The female retains the eggs inside her body for about six months until they hatch. Females may birth up to 20 young. Parental care is not provided to the young although they may remain close to their mother for one to two weeks. Baby rattlesnakes are born with their fist rattle segment called a button. As the snake grows and sheds its skin, it gains another segment on its rattle. Snakes may molt three to six times a year so it is difficult to determine a snake’s age by the number of segments on its rattle. Male timer rattle snakes reach sexual maturity around age three and females at age four. Males mate every year while females only mate once every two to three years.
Timber rattlesnake predators include red-tailed hawks, foxes, owls, and skunks but human activities and habitat destruction have the biggest impact on their populations. Across their range, many timber rattlesnake populations have been reduced or exterminated. In Oklahoma, timber rattlesnakes are a game species with a restricted hunting season. Long fangs coupled with a high venom yield make the timber rattlesnake one of Oklahoma’s most dangerous snakes. However timbers are generally very docile and will only bite as a last resort. If provoked, it will become aggressive. When any rattlesnake rattles its tail, consider that a warning and leave the snake alone. If the snake still feels it is in danger after rattling its tail, it will lung toward the threat but keeps its mouth closed. Venom is costly to produce so even if the snake does bite, it could be a dry bite. Because timber rattle snakes are not aggressive, it is unlikely to bite someone if left alone. Most bites are the result of people intentionally handling these snakes.