One of the first snakes I became fascinated with as a boy was our local large rattlesnake known as "the timber rattler" (C. H. horridus). (There is another rattlesnake species locally but that's a topic for another day) This handsome snake ranges from New England all the way down here to Texas and exhibits some crazy color and pattern variations across its range. The ones in NE Texas tend to have a light tan ground colors, dark chocolate chevrons along the dorsal surface and a nice crisp cinnamon stripe running most of the way down the spine. I have seen them up to 5-1/2 feet long. They tend to be very thick bodied so a snake this size looks absolutely enormous!
Growing up, I heard many "rural legends" about these snakes. Everyone had an uncle who killed one that was 8 feet long or their cousin got chased by one or their dad once had one jump out of a tree onto him. Basically, they all had some third person story about a terrifying experience with a demonic animal and that's why we should kill them all before they get us. I'm not going to type the 5000 words I want to about that, so let's move on.
What fascinated me wasn't the made-up/old wives' tales, it was the real world inaccuracies that presented themselves. This was my first exposure to how scientific knowledge works. Up until my experiences with the timber rattle snake I accepted everything the text books and experts told me as 100% truth. Then I learned that while science is the study of the universe around us, the resulting understanding of that universe is constantly growing and changing. As we learn more, you must be able to accept the new data and develop new understanding. The truth doesn't change, our understanding of the truth changes. I had quite a problem rectifying this with the local religious folks in my area but I won't type 5000 words about that either.
So, for example, I remember talking to a game warden who told me all about how a researcher had studied thousands of timber rattle snakes for many years and found that it took them 5-7 years to reach sexual maturity. I repeated this "fact" for years until I ran into a herpetologist from my area who explained that the researcher had done his studies in upstate New York and that snakes in warmer climates typically reached sexual maturity much quicker (2-3 years). I had been spreading lies! Not really, I had been spreading inaccuracies, sort of like the guy who insists a snake jumped out of a tree on to him. This makes everyone wary of the tree-climbing, person-jumping pit vipers of the Southern US, a story that typically turns out to be something like: The river flooded and to escape the rising waters non-aquatic snakes (sometimes even venomous ones) climbed up into low hanging tree branches. Fishermen running the river for cat fish in the flood waters floated under the trees, hit the branches and, voila, a legend is born!
Next is a much more scientific example of inaccuracies. When I was introduced to the timber rattlesnake I was told our local snake was a subspecies called "the canebrake rattlesnake" (C.H. atricaudatus). This was, in fact, what many text books said (a few still seem to say it) until a decade or so ago when new DNA testing seems to have proven that there is just one species.
In my home state of Texas, the Timber rattle snake is protected but I'm not sure how that matters as anyone who sees a timber rattlesnake kills it, the easiest place to find one is DOR (dead on road) and I've never heard of anyone getting in trouble for it. As near as I can tell, their "protected" status only keeps law abiding citizens from catching and keeping them. (which is definitely a good thing). If you are an experienced hot-herp keeper, live in Texas and want a timber rattlesnake you can always buy one from a dealer in a state where it is legal but do you really want to? How can the game warden tell where the snake came from? He can't so the responsibility falls to you to provide adequate proof that your animal is legal. Seems a hassle in a state full of super cool legal animals.
As far as field herping goes, the timber rattlesnakes seem to be locally abundant, appearing over and over in certain areas while not at all in others. I, honestly don't think I've ever found one in the woods. They are secretive, ambush predators who spend most of their time on the leafy, forest floor waiting for squirrels and other rodents to run by. Their camouflage and reluctance to rattle serves them well. Typically, when I do run across one, it's in the road. Like this one I saw a couple days ago while riding my bicycle.
It occurs to me that I should have included some words of caution at the beginning of this post about NOT touching snakes in the wild but it occurs to me that all you need to know is most snakes in North America are harmless (to humans) and a few can hurt you terribly (even kill you). If you want to know the difference you will seek that knowledge out, other wise you'll just distrust all snakes regardless. I don't want you running into the woods picking up snakes because you think they are harmless. I want you to not freak out and run away just because you saw a snake.
While I'm talking about potentially dangerous snake bites I'll end with one more interesting this about this animal: its venom is sometimes incredibly neurotoxic. I have not been able to find any research explaining why it happens but I have read many articles written by herpers telling the same horrible story: experienced hot herp keeper gets bit, expects a long painful experience but instead suddenly dies. Snake venom is complex and I am certainly not qualified to go into the intricacies but as I understand it, venom is a mixture of complex proteins that attached to and destroy particular cell structures in the bodies of the organism that gets bit. Depending on the mixture the venom attacks blood, tissue (muscle/heart/lungs) and nerves. Most North American pit vipers have a lot of muscle destroying venom and not a lot of nerve attacking venom (compared to, say, mambas and cobras). Typically what you worry about is death by hemorrhaging in the lungs or brain or infection days later due to all the tissue death. It's unpleasant but the snake's name is "horridus". Does that sound pleasant? It does not.
Wow. I ended on a low note considering I really like this animal.
OK, here's another picture to liven things back up.
Quick edit. Here's a video of this snake as he disappears into the under brush.