Rare Species Guide

 Crotalus horridus    Linnaeus, 1758

Timber Rattlesnake 

MN Status:
Federal Status:


(Mouse over a habitat for definition)

Minnesota range map
Map Interpretation
North American range map
Map Interpretation

  Basis for Listing

The timber rattlesnake occurs in the eastern and central United States. Minnesota is on the northwestern periphery of its range, which extends north along the Mississippi River from Illinois to Minnesota. Timber rattlesnake specimens have been collected from 8 counties in southeastern Minnesota, but survey efforts in the late 1990s and early 2000s found that populations were substantially reduced or extirpated from several areas where they occurred historically (Keyler and Fuller 1999; Keyler and Oldfield 2003). The major cause of the timber rattlesnake's decline is its vulnerability to systematic and willful destruction by humans. Although the species is secretive and not aggressive, people's fear of it led to the creation of a bounty in Minnesota in 1909. Records for Houston County indicate a marked decline in that county's timber rattlesnake population, with nearly 5,000 bounties paid in 1970, but only 191 in 1987 (Keyler and Oldfield 1992). Habitat destruction, road mortality, and collection for the pet trade are other factors in the species decline. In 1984, the timber rattlesnake was designated a special concern species in Minnesota, and in 1989 the bounty was repealed. Because of declining populations, the timber rattlesnake was reclassified as threatened in 1996.


The timber rattlesnake is a large snake, averaging 80-122 cm (31.5-48 in.) in length (Oldfield and Moriarty 1994). It has a broad, triangular-shaped head and narrow neck, a distinctive barred body pattern, significantly keeled scales, a gray to tan rattle with 1 to over 13 segments, and a single anal plate. Timber rattlesnakes also have a sensory pit, visible on each side of their head, between their eye and nostril. Their eyes have vertically elliptical pupils. The background color of their bodies varies from gray to yellow to dark brown, but their tail is always solid black. The timber rattlesnake is 1 of 2 venomous snakes in Minnesota, the other being the eastern massasauga (Sistrurus catenatus). While the eastern massasauga also has a gray to tan rattle, it is a smaller snake (47-76 cm; 18.5-30 in. long) and lacks the distinctive banded pattern of the timber rattlesnake. Several species of harmless snakes, including the milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum), western foxsnake (Pantherophis vulpinus), and gophersnake (Pituophis catenifer), may be confused with the timber rattlesnake. However, none of these species have facial sensory pits or a rattle, their body markings are blotched rather than barred, and their pupils are round rather than elliptical. The buzzing sound of a timber rattlesnake's rattle is generally a diagnostic characteristic; however, other snakes will rapidly vibrate their tails when threatened, often resembling the sound of a rattlesnake.

Other common names used for the timber rattlesnake include velvet tail and banded rattlesnake.


In Minnesota, the ideal habitat for timber rattlesnakes includes forested bluffs, south-facing rock outcrops, and bluff prairies, particularly in the Mississippi River valley. Bluff prairies located on steep, south or west-facing hillsides, with rock outcroppings and ledges, are essential habitat components because over-wintering dens are often located in these areas. Surrounding forests, prairies, and agricultural lands are used as summer feeding grounds. Two necessary habitat components for this species are open areas for thermoregulation and dens for over-wintering.

  Biology / Life History

Timber rattlesnakes live within small home ranges that include three seasonal components: summer range, transient habitat, and over-wintering sites. Summer habitat is used for foraging and loafing, and encompasses an area from 300 m (0.19 mi.) up to 6.4 km (4 mi.) from the den site, depending on the sex and reproductive status of the snake (Minnesota DNR 2009). Gravid females stay closer to the den site, using open, rocky areas that are thought to provide higher ground temperatures needed for gestation. Males and nongravid females travel farther from the den site, using wooded areas and woodland edges. Transient habitat, also referred to as a staging area, is the area used by snakes when moving between summer and winter habitat and includes open woodlands with exposed clearings and shelter rocks (Minnesota DNR 2009). Winter habitat includes a den, also known as a hibernaculum, usually located in rocky areas of cliff ledges, or talus slopes that provide crevices for protection from cold weather and predators (Brown 1993). In Minnesota, dens are typically located on south and west facing slopes, which allow for warmer surface temperatures (Minnesota DNR 2009). Den sites are communal and can be shared with other snake species including gophersnakes, North American racers (Coluber constrictor), and milksnakes (Oldfield and Moriarty 1994). Timber rattlesnakes typically use the same den year after year (Brown 1989), although some snakes have been found to use multiple dens within the same area (Adams 2005). Timber rattlesnakes emerge from their dens in late April or early May, and return to them in late September or early October.

Females do not reach reproductive maturity until 6-11 years of age, and they breed only every 2-3 years (Minnesota DNR 2009). Consequently, a female may only produce 3-5 litters in her reproductive life. This low reproductive rate makes it difficult for depleted populations to increase their numbers. Brown (1993) suggests that a population must include 30-40 snakes per den, including 4-5 mature females, to remain viable. Mating takes place throughout the summer and fall. The following year, females give birth to around 7 live young in late August or September. Newborn snakes remain with their mother for their first 2 weeks, but then must fend for themselves.

In spring and fall, timber rattlesnakes are active during the day, but during the hottest part of summer, they are primarily active at night. They mainly eat small mammals, but will occasionally eat birds, insects, and amphibians. Timber rattlesnakes are ambush predators that wait for prey to wander by, then bite it and inject it with venom. An animal that has been bitten is able to run a short distance before succumbing to the effects of the venom. The rattlesnake then follows a scent trail to the prey and swallows it whole. Timber rattlesnakes exhibit arboreal behavior throughout their range, although this behavior is not common. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, they have been observed 1-2 m (3.3-6.6 ft.) above ground in cedars and grapevines.

  Conservation / Management

The timber rattlesnake's relatively long lifespan, low reproductive rate, infrequent reproductive events, and high juvenile mortality leads to a population dominated by older age classes with variable annual recruitment (Minnesota DNR 2009). As a result, the impact of removing a single adult, especially a female, from a population can be significant (Brown 1993). Therefore, conservation of timber rattlesnakes must concentrate on protection of both individual snakes and habitat.

In Minnesota, the most significant causes of timber rattlesnake mortality are anthropogenic including human persecution, road mortality, and habitat destruction. Snakes at den sites are particularly vulnerable to disturbance and poaching. Since the late 1980s, surveys of selected den sites have documented vandalism of dens and drastic reductions in timber rattlesnake populations. Current laws that prohibit the collecting or killing of timber rattlesnakes at den sites should be strictly enforced and violators prosecuted.

Snakes are especially vulnerable to road mortality because they freeze when they sense the vibration of an oncoming vehicle. Several studies have also shown that drivers frequently intentionally swerve to hit snakes that are on roads (Langley et al. 1989; Rudolph et al. 1998; Ashley et al. 2007). Timber rattlesnakes should be taken into consideration whenever roads are proposed within potential habitat, and measures to keep snakes off of roads should be incorporated into road designs. Education efforts to encourage drivers not to intentionally hit snakes observed on roads would also be beneficial.

Timber rattlesnake summer foraging habitat is also vulnerable to habitat degradation and destruction as bluff top lots are considered prime real estate. Bluff habitat is at risk as homes are often built up to the edge, to maximize views, and quarrying operations expand in response to local development needs (Minnesota DNR 2009). Communities should be encouraged to adopt bluff top set-back ordinances that restrict development within a minimum of 61 m (200 ft.) of bluff edges.

Bluff prairies that once harbored exposed rock outcrops have become overgrown with red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and other brush species, making them less desirable as den sites. Shaded sites potentially reduce reproductive success by limiting the number of days with high ground temperatures, which females need in order to incubate young. This in turn may lead to delayed birth, which poses another risk if females and young do not have enough time to eat and enter hibernation in poor body condition. Additionally, shaded sites may force gravid snakes to travel further from their den site in search of warmer, open areas, thereby increasing their risk of predation or persecution (Minnesota DNR 2009). Maintaining open areas at den sites through cutting, burning, or the use of herbicides may be helpful for timber rattlesnakes. Fire can also be used to maintain open fields, but burning should only be conducted in early spring before snakes emerge from hibernation, or in late fall, after snakes have ingressed into their dens. General prescribed burning guidelines have been developed for amphibians and reptiles in the Midwest, although land managers conducting burns may wish to contact their Regional Nongame Wildlife Specialist for input on burn planning. Timber harvest within the species' summer range can also have negative effects and should be designed in consultation with Nongame staff.

  Conservation Efforts in Minnesota

Surveys for timber rattlesnakes in Minnesota have been funded and coordinated by a collaborative effort of the Minnesota DNR Nongame Wildlife Program (NWP), Division of Parks and Trails, and Minnesota Biological Survey for almost 20 years. Formal surveys began in 1990-1991 at 6 southeastern Minnesota State Parks. Since then, a number of surveys and research projects have been conducted, including surveys at sites on the periphery of the species' range (Keyler and Fuller 1999); habitat assessments (Fuller 2000); DNA haplotype and lineage research (Keyler 2000); reproduction research (Keyler and Wilzbacher 2002); a transient movement study (Hanson and Keyler 2003); and population surveys and habitat management (Keyler and Oldfield 2003; Fritcher and Quinn 2005; Keyler and LeClere 2005; Fritcher and Quinn 2008). The NWP has conducted annual timber rattlesnake surveys and bluff prairie restoration on private lands in southeast Minnesota since 2003, with funding from the federal Landowner Incentive Program. In 2008, a telemetry study to evaluate timber rattlesnake use of sites that have undergone habitat management was initiated. Combining all survey efforts conducted in Minnesota up to 2008, approximately 450 bluffs have been surveyed in southeastern Minnesota and at least 122 dens have been identified, although their viability is unknown (Minnesota DNR 2009).

Educating the public about the plight of the timber rattlesnakes has been a priority for the NWP in southeastern Minnesota. Through the Rattlesnake Responder Program (a program where assistance in rattlesnake relocation is provided to landowners who encounter snakes on their property), the Landowner Incentive Program, educational workshops and park programs, and outreach materials, numerous strategies have been employed to try to increase awareness and acceptance of timber rattlesnakes and reduce human-inflicted mortality.

In the late 1990s, a committee comprised of resource managers, researchers, and field staff was formed to address concerns about rattlesnake populations and habitat management in Minnesota. The committee prepared a timber rattlesnake recovery plan to aid in the management of timber rattlesnake populations and habitats. The recovery plan spans 10 years, the timeframe in which repeated surveys should be able to determine whether a viable timber rattlesnake population occurs in Minnesota. The plan identifies 9 timber rattlesnake recovery units for Minnesota, and each unit must include a minimum number of viable dens to be considered as having a viable population. For a den to be considered viable, it must maintain a minimum population threshold of 50 snakes or show evidence of reproduction, and be observed in use at least once every 5 years. The recovery plan also identifies several habitat protection goals including restoring 1,052 ha (2,600 ac.) of bluff prairie that contain active rattlesnake dens, and an additional 1,052 ha (2,600 ac.) around active den sites.

  References and Additional Information

Adams, J. 2005. Home range and behavior of the Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus. Thesis. Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia. 98 pp.

Ashley, E. P., A. Kosloski, and S. A. Petrie. 2007. Incidence of intentional vehicle-reptile collisions. Human Dimensions of Wildlife 12(3):137-143.

Brown, W. S. 1989. Patterns of life history events in a northern population of the Timber Rattlesnake, Crotalus horridus. The Biology of Pitvipers Symposium of the Texas Herpetological Society and the University of Texas, November 1989, Arlington, Texas.

Brown, W. S. 1993. Biology, status, and management of the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus): a guide for conservation. Society for the study of Amphibians and Reptiles, Herpetological Circular No. 22. vi + 78 pp.

Fritcher, S., and E. Quinn. 2005. Recovery of state threatened Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) populations in Minnesota's blufflands state parks and Scientific and Natural Areas. Final report submitted to the State Wildlife Grants Program. 5 pp.

Fritcher, S., and E. Quinn. 2008. Habitat management and protection of state threatened Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) populations in Minnesota's blufflands state parks and Scientific and Natural Areas. Final report submitted to the State Wildlife Grants Program. 7 pp.

Fuller, K. 2000. 1999 Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) blufflands habitat site assessment. Report submitted to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Rochester, Minnesota.

Fuller, K., and B. Erpelding. 1998. The Timber Rattlesnake in Minnesota. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Nongame Wildlife Program. Pamphlet.

Hanson, K., and D. Keyler. 2003. The transient movements of Timber Rattlesnakes along the Root River State Trail. Final report submitted to the Minnesota Herpetological Society. Unpaged.

Keyler, D. E. 2000. Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) DNA: Haplotype and lineage in the upper Mississippi River Valley. Report submitted to the Minnesota Herpetological Society and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Keyler, D. E. and B. L. Oldfield. 1992. Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) field survey on southeastern Minnesota state lands (1991-1992). Final report submitted to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Nongame Wildlife Program. 28 pp.

Keyler, D. E., and B. Oldfield. 2003. Timber Rattlesnake field survey. Report to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 17 pp.

Keyler, D. E., and J. LeClere. 2005. Timber Rattlesnake field survey, Beaver Creek, Forestville, Frontenac, and Whitewater State Parks (June 2003) Houston, Fillmore, Goodhue, and Winona counties, Minnesota. Report submitted to the Nongame Wildlife Program, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Rochester, Minnesota.

Keyler, D. E., and J. Wilzbacher. 2002. Timber Rattlesnake reproduction at Great River Bluffs State Park (2000-2002) Winona County, Minnesota. Report submitted to the Nongame Wildlife Program, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 10 pp.

Keyler, D. E., and K. Fuller. 1999. Survey of Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) peripheral range on southern Minnesota state lands (1998). Final report submitted to the Nongame Wildilfe Program, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul. 14 pp.

Langley, W. M., H. W. Lipps, and J. F. Theis. 1989. Responses of Kansas motorists to snake models on a rural highway. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Sciences. 92(1/2):43-48.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2009. Timber Rattlesnake recovery plan (Crotalus horridus). Division of Ecological Resources, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 47 pp.

Oldfield, B., and J. J. Moriarty. 1994. Amphibians and reptiles native to Minnesota. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 237 pp.

Rudolph, D. C., S. J. Burgdorf, R. N. Conner, and J. G. Dickson. 1998. The impact of roads on the Timber Rattlesnake, (Crotalus horridus), in eastern Texas. Pages 236-240 in G. L. Evink, P. Garrett, D. Zeigler and J. Berry, editors. Proceedings of the International Conference on Wildlife Ecology and Transportation. FL-Er-69-98, Florida Department of Transportation, Tallahassee, Florida.

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