2017-08-02 / Front Page

Local timber rattlers are unpopular but vital to forest

by Kate Shunney

This timber rattlesnake was one of several that have been spotted in Cacapon State Park in 2017. photo by Kate Shunney This timber rattlesnake was one of several that have been spotted in Cacapon State Park in 2017. photo by Kate Shunney State wildlife officials won’t say exactly where timber rattlers are being spotted in West Virginia, but said they have gotten “quite a few reports” from people encountering the snakes at Cacapon State Park since early spring. Stories from local residents indicate there are quite a few, indeed.

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources launched a Timber Rattlesnake Survey online in April and asked citizens from around the state to participate. So far, DNR officials have gotten reports of 95 timber rattler sightings around West Virginia. They will run the survey for two years.

The Citizen Scientist project is one way biologists hope to keep tabs on a snake that serves an important role in the forest, said Wildlife Diversity Biologist Kevin Oxenrider. He admits they aren’t popular creatures.

“It’s okay to not like snakes, but they still serve a purpose,” said Oxenrider. He’s trying to get the message out that the timber rattlesnake is worth protecting.

The timber rattlesnake is a large, heavy bodied snake with a wide head and narrow neck. Adult timber rattlesnakes can reach lengths of up to four feet. Timber rattlesnakes also have a rattle at the end of the tail, characteristic of the snake's name.

Rattlesnakes are the top forest predator, helping to control small mammal and rodent populations by eating as many as they can.

Those small mammals and rodents, like deer mice, white-footed mice and chipmunks are major carriers of viruses and diseases like Lyme Disease, which pose a risk to human health. If small mammal populations aren’t kept in check, rodents can destroy the forest understory by eating too many acorns, and hindering the growth of new trees. Fewer acorns also pose a risk to deer and other larger forest animals who rely on them as a source of food.

“Snakes are important in that they keep the whole system in check,” said Oxenrider.

One reason for the recent concern over rattlesnake populations was the discovery of snake fungal disease in West Virginia. The disease can decimate rattlesnake and other snake populations, as it has done in New Hampshire and other areas of the northeast.

Tracking where rattlesnakes may den or hibernate will allow biologists to do surveillance and long-term monitoring to track the effects of the fungal disease on Mountain State snakes.

One active measure DNR officials are taking to reduce the spread of fungal disease is to educate people about the need to sanitize their equipment if they are handling snakes.

Oxenrider said West Virginians fear of rattlesnakes is understandable, but not always based on biological reality.

“They don’t want to bite you. They don’t see you as prey,” he said.

Most rattlesnake bites happen when a person comes into close contact with the snake while trying to kill or move it, said Oxenrider. People can also be bitten if they surprise a rattler.

Rattlesnakes prefer rocky areas where there are clearings that let in sunlight, which they need to warm themselves.

The DNR won’t reveal much about the location of rattlesnakes reported through their survey, as a way to protect den areas where the snakes hibernate or gather.

He said in the past, some people have targeted dens for destruction, even going to the extreme of dropping dynamite in den sites.

Given the snake’s role in the forest ecosystem, the DNR is taking steps to protect it.

“West Virginia is pretty unique in that the vast majority of the state is contiguous forest. That’s what rattlesnakes need to thrive,” he said.

People who spot a timber rattlesnake are asked to report the location of the sighting on the DNR’s website.

Additional comments, questions, and pictures can be sent by email to kevin.j.oxenrider@wv.gov.

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