Timber rattlesnakes once lived throughout the Eastern United States, from Maine to Florida and west to Texas and Minnesota.
After 200-plus years of habitat loss, they can only be found in pockets of their former territory, mostly in heavily wooded and sparsely populated areas — like Brown County.
“They’re here, they’re native and they’re great, and we want to keep them around,” said Ashton Abrams, interpretive naturalist at Brown County State Park.
Dozens of people turned out for a program on the timber rattlesnake last Friday at the park.
The guest of honor was a live timber rattler, which is kept at the Nature Center after being rescued eight years ago from an illegal breeding operation.
It might be the only timber rattlesnake that the children who gathered around its aquarium tank will ever see.
Timber rattlesnakes are one of two venomous snake species found in Brown County. The other is the much more common copperhead.
“As far as how many people are aware, it’s very rare,” Abrams said about the timber rattlesnake.
“It’s really only the people who are from around here or maybe really love reptiles and want to be a herpetologist who understand that the timber rattlesnake is here and is native.”
Park officials have found five active hibernacula, or hibernation dens, in Brown County State Park. They’re mostly found in rock outcroppings.
Timber rattlesnakes return to the same dens each fall to hibernate, often sharing the den with other species of non-venomous snakes.
As many as 200 snakes have been found in a single hibernaculum.
If the hibernation dens are destroyed or blocked off, the timber rattlesnakes will keep searching for a way in and usually die with the onset of winter.
For that reason, efforts to relocate the timber rattlesnake are usually unsuccessful.
“Timbers are incredibly loyal to their home range, which can be as much as two miles, and to their home hibernaculum,” Abrams said.
Presentations like the one offered last week are meant to educate the public about timber rattlesnake, raise awareness about why it is a valuable animal in the Brown County habitat, and warn people to be cautious while they are out in the woods, park officials said.
Encounters with the snake can go badly.
That was the case in June, when an Indianapolis woman’s two dogs were running off the leash on trail nine and found a timber rattlesnake near the Taylor Ridge campground. One, a miniature dachshund, ran up to the snake, which was coiled up in a defensive position and rattling and hissing. The dog was bitten in the eye and later died.
Park officials stress that such encounters with timber rattlesnakes are rare.
The dog’s death could have been prevented by following state park rules that require animals to be kept on a leash, park officials said.
Indiana Conservation Officer Jason Lee said he can recall maybe a half-dozen cases involving timber rattlesnakes over the past 10 years in Brown County.
Encounters with the copperhead are much more common, he said.
“They are listed as endangered for a reason,” Lee said.
After instances like the one in June, some people are prone to vilify the timber rattlesnake as a cold-blooded killer. But the timber rattlesnake is generally content to slither off whenever it is discovered and left alone, Lee said.
“I’ve dealt with them for 15 years now and I’m just telling you, people probably have more to fear walking across the street in downtown Nashville than they do from those snakes,” he said.
ID and ‘let it be’
People familiar with snakes are generally able to recognize the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead, Brown County’s two venomous snake species, at a glance.
Both snakes are pit vipers, recognizable by the large heat-sensing pits between the eye and the nostril on each side of the snake’s head. The pits help the snakes locate their warm-blooded prey at night.
Both snakes also have vertical pupils, as opposed to the round pupils on non-venomous snake species found in Indiana.
The thick-bodied timber rattlesnake is capable of growing up to five feet long.
But not all timber rattlesnakes will rattle to warn you of their presence.
And a number of non-venomous snakes, including rat snakes and hognose snakes, will sometimes put on displays and “rattle” their tails in the dry leaves of the forest floor, hoping to scare off potential predators.
Brown County State Park officials caution people to keep a safe distance from any snake.
Bites by a venomous snake are considered a serious medical event requiring prompt professional treatment.
“The easiest thing to do is just back away,” said Conservation Officer Jason Lee. “There is no snake in Indiana that is going to chase you down and bite you. When people start monkeying with the snake, picking it up or trying to catch it, poke it, or kill it, that’s when we start having problems.”
"We don’t want any Steve Irwins around the park,” said Interpretative Naturalist Ashton Abrams. “If you see a snake, no matter what it is, if you know it’s a garter snake, if you know it’s a milk snake, just leave it alone. That’s the best way to not be hurt by anything and to not hurt the animal.”
“My biggest concern is kids. Parents want their kids to know about nature, but they have to educate them to know you can’t just grab everything you see. We just want people to respect the animal and leave it be.”
Timber rattlesnakes reported in populated areas and camping areas of Brown County State Park will be removed temporarily by park staff and released in the same area at a later time.
It is a Class A misdemeanor to kill a timber rattlesnake, a state endangered species.
Park officials have heard all sorts of myths about the timber rattlesnake.
One is that the snake is not native to Indiana.
Another myth is that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources introduced the snake into Brown County State Park, dropping them out of helicopters under the cover of night.
Both are absolutely false.
“They belong here and we want to make sure they stay around,” said Jim Eagleman, an interpretive naturalist at Brown County State Park.