‘America’s Snake’ chronicles life and times of iconic timber rattlesnake

New book delves into serpent’s biology and conservation threats

Crotalus horridus

AMERICAN IDOL The natural history of the timber rattlesnake, an early symbol of the United States, is the subject of a new book. 

Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

America’s Snake
Ted Levin
Univ. of Chicago, $35

Turns out, it is possible to be a lucky snakebite victim. Depending on the circumstances (and the snake’s mood, presumably), a timber rattlesnake may choose to strike its prey with only one fang and to pump out little or no venom when it does so. Far from being mindless, hair-triggered biting machines, timber rattlers don’t always strike — even when stepped on.

In America’s Snake, zoologist and snake enthusiast Ted Levin thoroughly recounts the anatomical marvels of the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) from head to tail. For instance, the snake — promoted by Benjamin Franklin as a symbol of the nascent United States, hence the book’s title — has heat-sensitive pits on its snout that can sense temperature differences as small as 0.001 degrees Celsius. Tail muscles can shake the namesake rattle almost 90 times per second, uninterrupted, for hours.

But this delightful book is at its best when it delves into the weird world of the people associated with this species, including the scientists who study and seek to protect it, the property developers and suburban gardeners who revile it, and the poachers and bounty hunters who have decimated its populations.

Once found in at least 31 states, including all of the original 13 colonies, the timber rattler is now either extinct or endangered in several states, largely thanks to the vagaries of its life cycle and habits, Levin notes. In the Northeast, for instance, the snake’s preferred habitat is steep rocky outcrops of south-facing terrain; winter chill forces the snakes to spend much of their lives in dens. Females typically don’t breed until they’re at least 6 years old and then just once every three to six years after that. And although a timber rattler can live more than 40 years, the fact that it usually returns each fall to the den in which it was born means that once a den’s location is known, the snake and its den mates are vulnerable to poachers.

America’s Snake is a tour of all senses. Levin’s descriptions of his field trips include the slick feel of rain-moistened rocks; the bitter, acidic taste of acorns; and the gunpowder-like smell generated by boulders grinding against one another in a rockslide. 

Buy America’s Snake from Amazon.com. Sales generated through the links to Amazon.com contribute to Society for Science & the Public’s programs.

More Stories from Science News on Animals