A question for herpetologists

Here in Minnesota, there is only one species of posionous snake, and that is the rattlesnake (timber rattler, I think). There are not very many of them, and they are mostly in the Southwestern part of the state.

Recently some friends of mine were hiking in Granite Falls, and saw a snake that they believe was a small rattler. At first it played dead, then it coiled and rattled its rattles, and then my friend’s partner teased it with a stick and it struck the stick. (I like snakes and have never seen a rattler, but I certainly wouldn’t have tried to get it to strike.)

I thought at first that this may have been a more common snake that uses its similarity to a rattler as a defense (at least that’s why people usually leave it alone; sorry about anthropomorphisizng), but they say they saw the rattle.

Now, this would only have been a couple hundred miles from its usual territory at the most. How far do snakes usually travel? Could this be a fluke or could they be expanding their territory? Do any of you snake people have ideas about this?


Did the snake actually rattle, or did it just puff up, shake its tail around, and hiss a lot? If there was an actual rattle, well, then it was a rattlesnake regardless of where it was found.

Remember, geographic ranges that are drawn on maps or otherwise established by humans mean nothing to the snake. Defined ranges get established and revised due to confirmed observations. Sometimes, an individual can be found outside of the accepted range because it got confused and lost. This is more common in more mobile or migratory species, such as birds.

This does not necessarily mean that the species is expanding its range. It could be a fluke, or it could have been a normal range for the species, just that we don’t know enough about the life history of a given species to accurately define the actual range.

But I wouldn’t discount an eywitness account of a snake “a couple hundred miles from its usual territory,” if your friends are cofident with what they saw.

I’ll ask my friend when I see her in class this morning.


Do any non-poisonous snakes (I’m thinking mainly of garter snakes) shake their tails when they feel threatened? I ask because I saw a small snake do this several years ago in Maine (which I had been told had no poisonous snakes). It was less than a foot long, only a little thicker than a pencil and didn’t make any rattling noise. I had never seen or heard of a garter snake doing this, so I thought it might have been a baby timber rattlesnake. Since then, however, nobody has reported any rattlers, and my father’s always looking for snakes around the house. He likes having them around since they eat the mice and the bugs. Poisonous ones, though, are another matter.

Oh, yes. Many non-venomous snakes do this, including garter snakes. They prefer to hide or slink away, but if overly threatened they will puff and hiss, and shake their tail in an effort to fool you (or whatever is confronting them) into thinking you are up against a venomous rattler. They will also strike, although they really don’t want to pick a fight with something as large as a human. (Behavior will differ between species, with some garters more quick to aggression than others). Many snakes, including garters, will also give off a foul smell to make a molestor turn away in disgust.

they heard the rattle rather than saw it, from what I could understand.

She said they were at the Minnesota State Fair, and asked someone at an informational booth about poisonous snakes in Minnesota, and were told that there are two species. She could not remember the names given, and when I recited what I thought was a list of the only poisonous snakes in the continental US (rattler, water mocassin, coral and copperhead) she said the species (besides rattler) was none of the ones I named, so I am stumped. Has another species been discovered?

It might just be another name for one of the ones you mentioned. Water moccasins, for instance, are also called cottonmouths. There’s also a few different species of rattlesnake, I believe, so you can’t quite say that there’s only four species of poisonous snake in the US.

I guess I had assumed that the rattlesnakes were different vaieties rather than separate species.

I don’t know if you have hog nosed snakes in Minnesota, but they do a pretty effective job of mimicking poisonous snakes. They puff up their bodies, coil, hiss and strike when confronted. They also shake their tails, and if they do so near any dead leaves they can pretty effectively replicate the sound of a rattlesnake’s rattle. If all of these tricks fail, the hognosed snake (sometimes called a “puff adder” in the South) will roll over, belly up, and play dead. It can also emit a foul scent like the garter snakes (the better to play dead).

Having said that, with the warm weather we’ve had the past few years, it wouldn’t surprise me to find rattlesnakes expanding their range northward.

We have many species of rattlesnake in the U.S., by the way. A partial list: Eastern Diamondback, Western Diamondback, Sidewinder, Timber Rattler, Pygmy Rattlesnake, Red Rattlesnake…etc.

Here’s more info on the Eastern Hognose Snake and the Western Hognose Snake.

It looks like the Western Hognose does range into Minnesota. Dunno about the Eastern Hognose.

My sister caught a hognose snake while vacationing in South Dakota. She at first thought it was a rattler. She kept it for a while to show people, and then she released it where she caught it.

Thanks for the links, and all the information.

(I meant to say varieties in my previous post.)

Actually both the current timber and historic massasauga rattlesnakewere in SE part of Minnesota. I have a research interest in historic accounts of rattlesnakes and there are two old accounts from Granite Falls area so it could be that there are still some there. Several snakes look like rattlesnakes and vibrate their tail. Unless they saw the rattle or it was being held up, it is more likely a fox snake or perhaps a hognose. If they have a picture send me a copy. I would love to confirm it.

James, this thread is 12 years old. I’m afraid it’s unlikely that any of the original participants are still following it, or indeed have a picture still kicking around.

Yeah, but that snake might be huge by now.

And it’s creeping up behind you RIGHT NOW.

Ah, that explains why Spoke’s links don’t work.