Pit vipers — the words evoke images of wide ditches full of writhing, venomous and vicious snakes, images that are inaccurate and falsely spread fear and misunderstanding.
Timber rattlers are members of the group of snakes called pit vipers, and as such do not live in pits and are not the aggressive villains portrayed in Hollywood.
“Perhaps the most interesting physical trait of timber rattlesnakes other than their camouflage, their rattles and their fangs, is the pit that lies between their nostrils and eyes and classifies them as New World vipers,” Jon Furman wrote in his book, “Timber Rattlesnakes in Vermont and New York.”
The so-called pit is a heat-sensitive organ that helps the snakes detect prey.
Furman’s book, published in 2007 by University Press of New England, is a great read, covering the life history of timber rattlesnakes, as well as a host of fascinating stories of the timber rattlesnake populations in four specific counties: Essex, Warren and Washington counties in New York and Rutland County in Vermont.
The book tells stories of biologists, landowners, public officials and bounty hunters. Furman also devotes a chapter to the biology of rattlesnake venom and recounts several true stories of snakebites and their medical consequences.
Despite their potential to do harm, rattlesnakes, like other types of snakes, have an important role in the forest. Small rodents are their primary prey, and since mice are a significant carrier of ticks that transmit Lyme disease, it could be argued that more snakes would benefit the Champlain Valley.
Snakes are also an interesting case in conservation biology. Because timber rattlesnakes are dependent on specific denning and basking sites, the destruction of a single den can be catastrophic to a small population. But dens can and have survived intense assault by humans.
Furman’s book spends several chapters reviewing the decades when the counties studies offered a bounty on rattlesnakes. Bounty hunters killed thousands of rattlesnakes over a period of 30 to 40 years, however the hunters protected dens enough to ensure the continuation of the populations for future income.