Wednesday 26 February 2014

Back From the Dead: Timber Rattlesnake

This year I am planning on doing some more surveys for rare and at risk species in Ontario on my own time.  This includes extirpated (extinct within a given region) species previously known from Ontario.

I thought it might be interesting to look at a few ultra rare species that would be interesting to look for.  One species that has long been gone from Ontario is the Timber Rattlesnake, a species which was once found largely throughout southern Ontario from the Niagara Escarpment to Pelee Island as well as a few other scattered locations.  Now by no means do I think that it is reasonable that the Timber Rattlesnake will be re-found in Ontario any time soon, the Environment Canada 2010 recovery strategy has effectively put that one to rest.  At the end of the recovery strategy, they say that "The recovery of this species is considered not feasible because sufficient suitable habitat is not available."  However, lets look at a little about this species, and where it might be found, just for fun. 

Timber Rattlesnake. Photo Credit JD Taylor

Historic Range of Timber Rattlesnake.  Last sighting was from the Niagara Glen in the 1940s.

Unfortunately, this species range is found within some of the most densely populated and heavily used agricultural areas in Ontario which has largely contributed to its demise, in addition to persecution.

According to the recovery strategy, this beautiful snake species used to be found in "forested areas with rock outcrops, dry ridges and second growth deciduous or coniferous forests with southern exposures (Brown 1993; Smith 2001). The most common overstory trees include red oak, eastern hemlock, sugar maple, white ash, white pine, American beech, birch, American basswood, and eastern red cedar (Brown
1993).  Most of the hibernaculae were located along the Niagara Escarpment.

The last spot this species was observed was in the Niagara Glen in the 1940's, with unsubstantiated reports from as late as the 1960's.  However, natural habitat along the escarpment and Niagara river has dwindled rapidly.

Niagara Glen area showing only a small strip of natural habitat along the edge of the river.
Currently, the nearest locations of Timber Rattlesnake are found across the border in Tompkins and Ontario counties in New York state.  So what do these areas have that southern Ontario doesn't? Much larger, more intact forested areas with associated rocky areas.  Unfortunately for Timber Rattlesnake (and many other species), Ontario has pillaged much of the forest cover in the south.  According to the recovery strategy, Environment Canada says that there should be approximately 50km squared of suitable habitat to support a viable populations of Timbers.

Nonetheless, I plan on doing some digging next time I take a hike into the Niagara Glen, at the very least to see the kinds of habitats that Timber Rattlers may have enjoyed back in the day.  What is left of the Niagara Escarpment is still very beautiful.

Gotta love those boulders!

I love the green colour to the water in the Glen, looks like something out of Lord of the Rings!


  1. I see this post was made ages ago... BUT... I just wanted to see if you had any encouraging luck when looking around this area. I desperately want to believe they are somewhere out there, still in Ontario.

  2. When I was in college in the 1990's I was hiking in Niagara Glen in an area off trail where many Tuliptrees were growing and I saw what I believe was a timber rattler slither into a hole in the rocks. It had a very stocky body and the coloration was correct to be a Timber rattler. Now this was before camera cell phones existed so I dont have a photo obviously but you may want to continue your search in this area. Their descendants may still live in that area.