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State reptile: Timber rattlesnake shuns the limelight

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Among its many symbols, as of 2008, the state of West Virginia has an officially recognized reptile: the timber rattlesnake.

Found through out West Virginia, Crotalus horridus often grows to a length of about 3 feet with the occasional specimen reaching a little more than 5 feet and weighing up to 5 pounds.

With its rough-edged scales, dark bands and long, fearsome fangs, the timber rattler may be the stuff of nightmares, but Dr. Thomas Pauley, a biology professor and herpetologist (reptile expert) at Marshall University, said they're not really something to be terribly afraid of.

"We're freaked out about snakes, period," he said. "Whether it's a garter snake, a green snake or a rattlesnake."

Rattlesnakes, of course, are venomous, and the timber rattler is no exception.

"Of that, there's no doubt," Pauley said. "Could they kill you? They could. [But] there probably aren't that many deaths from timber rattler snakebites."

Not that the biology professor endorsed picking one up. Pauley would recommend leaving them alone, but he thinks the timber rattler isn't as scary as some might think.

He said, "They can certainly make you sick, and a person could die -- I'm not saying they wouldn't -- but if you check the figures, deaths by snakebite in West Virginia, there are very few."

Pauley pointed out that timber rattlers are pretty common in West Virginia; he acknowledged, though, that actual sightings are more rare. People just think they see them.

"I've been a herpetologist for 50-some years and there's hardly a week that goes by at Marshall when I don't get an email or a phone call. Someone will describe a snake or send me a picture, and they're always telling they're rattlesnakes or copperheads.

"They're usually garter snakes and black snakes and things that aren't venomous."

Pauley said a timber rattler looks very different than a garter snake or a black snake, but he added that it's human nature to assume that if it's a snake it has to be poisonous. Society, in general, has a deep-rooted fear of snakes.

People don't see timber rattlers, he explained, because the snakes don't want to be seen.

"They're just so secretive," he said.

Pauley recalled a few years ago that he and a graduate student had put transmitters on a number of snakes in Randolph County to track them with a receiver. Later, they were out looking for salamanders among some large rocks when the receiver picked up a signal of a nearby snake.

"We followed the antenna right over to that rattlesnake," he said.

The snake was tightly coiled up. Pauley said it was about the size of a coffee cup saucer and lying next to a tree root.

"I tell you, I would have walked right over it," he said.

Pauley stressed that it was a pretty big snake and would have kept hidden if not for the receiver.

Timber rattlers blend in and hide, and they don't move unless they have to.

"They're part of what's called the hidden biodiversity," Pauley said. "They're hidden and stay hidden, and we just don't know they're there."

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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