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The Endangered Timber Rattlesnake

March 14, 2016
Rattlesnake
Doug BlodgettPivotal to the forest ecosystem, the timber rattlesnake faces old and new threats.

Every spring, Doug Blodgett, a biologist for Vermont Fish and Wildlife, laces up his sturdy boots and goes out to count rattlesnakes. It’s hard work, as they’re masters of camouflage. “You don’t see them until, literally, you’re a foot or two away,” he says. “It’s never boring.”

Blodgett’s yearly count is part of an effort to preserve the timber rattlesnake, a species that helps balance forest ecosystems by preying on small rodents. This diet has the benefit of reducing the spread of Lyme disease since the rodents carry ticks. Though its venom can be fatal to humans, the timber rattlesnake is so shy that bites are rare and fatalities virtually unheard of.

Even so, humankind has pushed this misunderstood reptile to the brink of extinction in the Northeast. The timber rattlesnake has been eradicated in Rhode Island and Maine, and seven other northeastern states list it as endangered or threatened.

The odds have been stacked against the timber rattlesnake since the 19th century, when towns, fearing attacks on humans, offered rewards for dead snakes, a practice that didn’t end until the 1970s. Even now, misplaced fears continue to endanger the species, as do habitat loss and fragmentation, automobile traffic, and poaching. And now it faces a new threat: Ophidiomyces ophiodiicola, a fungus that causes Snake Fungal Disease (SFD). This illness frequently leaves the snakes with fatal lesions.

Nine states are working together to analyze the fungus, hoping to determine whether it is native or invasive. An invasive fungus would spread more quickly and present more complex challenges for combating SFD. Other efforts to preserve the timber rattlesnake include public education and habitat conservation.

“This species has been here for thousands and thousands of years, and it still deserves a place here,” Blodgett says.

 

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Susan Kieffer

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