Timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus). Photo by Peter Paplanus

The Species

If you feel a sudden, keen sense of loss upon hearing the name of the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), it’s not just your imagination. These snakes used to occur in Canada, with populations in southern Ontario and likely southern Quebec, according to historic reports. In both provinces, the snakes were exterminated by hunting parties killing the snakes at their dens, habitat loss, and hog farming using pigs to eradicate the snakes, until they had been wiped out across Canada. The last recorded sighting of a Canadian timber rattlesnake was in 1941, in the Niagara Gorge. No attempt to reintroduce the species has been made so far.

For those who didn’t kill the rattlesnakes on sight, the timber rattlesnake became a potent symbol of freedom and wilderness, and it was even one of the species considered for the distinction of becoming the animal symbol of the United States. This connection with and pride in the timber rattlesnake, in spite of the species’ Latin name (meaning “horrible rattlesnake”) suggests it is possible to live alongside them and react with something other than fear.

Across its now-exclusively American range, the timber rattlesnake lives in dry, open forests and fields, especially those with exposed rocks or cliff faces to use as basking sites. In winter, these snakes hibernate in groups underground, even in the relatively warm winters of midwestern states like Kansas, using rocky terrain that extends below the freeze line as hibernacula.

The Locale

Timber rattlesnake’s current and historical range. The northern extent of the species’ range previously extended into Canada, and included the Niagara peninsula, southern Quebec, and perhaps Pelee Island. Photo by Todd Konitzer

Lenexa is the 9th-largest city in the state of Kansas, with a population of just under 60,000. Although a part of the greater Kansas City area, it remains an independent municipality in the northeastern corner of the state, only 15 kilometres from the Missouri border. Lenexa spans the distance between Kansas City to its east and the Kansas River to the west.

The City of Lenexa hosts the Kansas State Barbecue Championship every year in June, and a Spinach Festival every September. The city is famous as the home of American Wild West legend “Wild Bill” Hickock and, more recently, actor Paul Rudd.

Timber Rattlesnakes are considered a “species in need of conservation” in Kansas. They have been known to appear infrequently in the open grassy areas near Lenexa’s outskirts, travelling across lawns and municipal parks, before leaving for less populated areas. Every so often, there is a call for a snake’s removal, but most simply pass through and are quickly gone.

The Methods

Lenexa City Centre. Photo by robidecking.com

In 2007, a city construction inspector noticed several timber rattlesnakes basking on and around a pile of concrete and rubble on a project site scheduled to be paved over and developed the following spring. When the site was investigated, it was found to be home to a den of dozens of rattlesnakes. With the (at the time) recent increase in rattlesnake sightings in residential neighbourhoods, local biologists were concerned at the requests for their advice on how best to destroy the dens and kill the rattlesnakes, despite the timber rattlesnake’s protected status. Instead of going ahead with the extermination, researchers reached an agreement to delay the development by two months, and a relocation project began.

In what was likely the first relocation of its kind, herpetologists from Rockhurst University, the Kansas Biological Survey, and venomous snake specialists volunteering to join the project from out of state relocated the entire den and released the snakes together. The release site provided suitable habitat, had been surveyed to confirm the presence of enough prey to support the snakes, was publicly owned to be sure there would be no future development, and was unoccupied by humans or a pre-existing rattlesnake population so they could safely re-establish their community out of harm’s way. The previously established method had been to move snakes individually to separate territories roughly two kilometres from their point of origin (this was considered a long-distance translocation), so this study was an important test of whether community structure or individual home territories were more important to the timber rattlesnake. A total of 35 snakes were implanted with radio transmitters so the researchers could follow their movements for 4 years. While two tracked snakes died in the first year, the population survived the move to their new home, and continued to use a communal den.

There is only one record of a timber rattlesnake bite in Lenexa since the relocation project was completed: a teenager was bitten on a bare foot in 2012, but made a full recovery.

“Timber Rattlesnakes are] the puppy dogs of the rattlesnake world. Timbers will rarely rattle, let alone strike.”

Mindy Walker

Assistant Professor of Biology, Rockhurst University

Final Thoughts

The Lenexa study showed just how important community can be to timber rattlesnakes, that when translocated, neighbouring snakes stuck together around a communal shelter. While it was previously found that relocating a timber rattlesnake less than two kilometres wasn’t effective at reducing human-snake conflict (the snake would attempt to return to where it had been removed from, often successfully), this study raises the possibility that a returning snake is not seeking its established territory per se, but perhaps instead its den-mates.

Canada is certainly the poorer for eliminating the timber rattlesnake from within our borders. Hopefully we can find it within ourselves to one day ensure their return and try again to live as neighbours. With the timber rattlesnake once again living within Canada, we could point to this icon of wilderness when we remind ourselves of “the true north strong and free.” Perhaps, at the very least, it would be possible to think of them as more than just the “horrible rattlesnake.”

Works Cited:


Successful Relocation of a Threatened Suburban Population of Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus): Combining Snake Ecology, Politics, and Education; Walker et al 2009

“The Once and Future Great Lakes Country” by John L. Riley



Connor Ferguson

Field Technician – Ojibway

Connor recently joined Wildlife Preservation Canada as a Field Technician with the massasauga rattlesnake team, working on monitoring and improving snake habitat to complement his previous species at risk reptile experience with skinks and turtles across Ontario. He completed the Ecosystem Restoration program at Niagara College to earn his graduate certificate.

Jonathan Choquette

Lead Biologist – Ojibway Prairie Reptile Recovery Program

Jonathan manages the recovery program for the Ojibway population of the massasauga rattlesnake in Southern Ontario. Jonathan’s research interests lie in the field of urban herpetology, having studied both biology and landscape architecture at the University of Guelph. Jonathan has authored or co-authored numerous reports and publications about the conservation of Canadian reptiles and amphibians in urban environments.

Jonathan Choquette