Rattlesnakes were once common across the Chesapeake Bay region. But they were exterminated from many areas of the East centuries ago by settlers who shot them in fear. State governments also offered cash bounties for killing rattlers.
There are only a few thousand timber rattlesnakes left in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The survivors tend to live in mountainous, rocky areas. They hide in remote parts of federal and state wildlife preserves, including the densely wooded Catoctin Mountains in Frederick County, Maryland.
On a recent morning, biologist William H. Martin set off on an expedition into the Catoctin Mountains to survey timber rattlesnakes. He wore plastic armor on his lower legs and wielded a pole with an iron hook. From his pocket he flicked a small square mirror. Every now and then, he crouched down and angled the mirror to peer under boulders and into rocky crevices.
Martin has been studying rattlesnakes across the Appalachian region for 40 years. He even lives with several of them at his home in West Virginia.
“Oh, I’ve got about a half dozen adults and about that many babies from last year,” he said, casually (as if rooming with rattlers is as routine as sleeping with dogs).
So I ask: “What kind of safety tips do you have for working with rattlesnakes?”
His reply was simple: “Keep your fingers away from the sharp parts.”
Martin is 71 years old. But he jumped so rapidly across the landscape of shattered rocks and fallen trees, I had a hard time keeping up with him.
During a pause, he explained that his annual population surveys since 1973 have found fewer rattlesnakes. He blames suburban sprawl.
“Rattlesnakes are well adapted to wilderness areas where there are no roads. Roads are their primary enemies,” Martin said. “Black racers and garter snakes, when they cross a road, they zip across it. A timber rattlesnake will take about 30 minutes to cross a typical two-land road. And there are very few two lane roads that don’t have traffic more frequently than that.”
The problem is not only that, because of their muscular structure, rattlesnakes are slow slitherers. The problem is also that when cars and trucks approach, rattlers have an instinct to stand their ground and strike at what they perceive as a predator, Martin explained. This doesn’t end well for the rattlers.
We strode through a dense growth of ferns with sun dappling the forest floor. Once, in a fern patch just like this one, he was bitten by a rattler when he stepped on the snake. He said his lower leg swelled up and turned black, requiring a colleague to drive him to a hospital emergency room.
That story made me nervous, especially when we found a snakeskin…and then a rattlesnake.
"Here’s one! Oh, I see two now,” Martin said.
He twisted his stick and lifted up a thick green and black snake with a diamond head.
“This is a gravid female, about three feet long,” he said.
The snake startled to rattle, making a sound like a loud HISSSSSSSSS!!!!!
“Oh, we’ve upset her,” Martin said. “Oh, and look. Do you see another rattlesnake over there?”
Nearby, on the boulder-strewn ground, were six more. We had stepped right into a nest of rattlesnakes. Martin gently put down his specimen, and walked away to look at something else, leaving me not sure what to do.
So I stood… very still.
When Martin returned, he pointed to a snake right next to my foot that I had not seen, because it was concealed in a cleft in the boulder.
Don’t worry, he assured me, rattlesnakes are generally passive and rarely strike people, unless people try to pick them up or step on them.
I did not do either. And so I made it out to write this story.
When I returned home, I called Scott Smith, a wildlife ecologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. He said that rattlesnakes play an important role in the ecosystem by keeping rodent populations in check. This is why Maryland and other states have made it illegal to capture or kill the snakes.
“Because they’re a snake, they have been killed indiscriminately,” Smith said. “Typically a human/ rattlesnake encounter doesn’t end too well for the rattlesnake. I don’t know the last time someone died from a rattlesnake bite in Maryland. They really don’t pose a threat to humans, if you look at the big picture.”
Strange as it may sound, rattlesnakes are actually good for human health because they help prevent disease, according to a study by University of Maryland Researcher Edward Kaybay.
The snakes eat mice and squirrels that carry ticks, which are vectors for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease in humans, according to Kaybay's research. A single rattlesnake eliminates as many as 4,000 ticks a year by eating their hosts.
By killing off rattlesnakes, people have destabilized the balance between predators and prey. And so we have overpopulated our world with mice and squirrels.
In our fear of being bitten, we've made ourselves more likely to get stung by Lyme disease.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo by the author)