Nick Engler was out hiking in the Charles C. Deam Wilderness, just south of Lake Monroe, on July 24 with his dog. He expected an experience like his many other hikes through the wooded trails.
“It was a standard walk, not even near the water,” he said. Engler parked in the Grubb Ridge Trail parking area and traveled a mile down the trail.
A fallen tree crossed the trail and a smaller trail let hikers through. As they walked down the narrower path, Engler’s dog, Bumblebee, tried to turn and run.
Engler said he heard a rattling noise and saw what appeared to be two snakes suspended in mid-air.
Engler was about 30 to 40 feet away from two intertwined timber rattlesnakes that were pushing against each other as they reared up, headfirst, tails rattling.
“My brain couldn’t figure out what that was,” Engler said. “And I thought, yeah, that’s two snakes.”
They were timber rattlesnakes, and big ones. Engler estimated that they were about 5 feet long and “as big as a 1-liter Coke bottle. I was surprised they were suspended in the air. They were huge. I didn’t think snakes were that big in Indiana.”
Engler watched and FaceTimed with his parents. She also took a video that she later posted on Facebook. Those three videos were posted to many groups, generating hundreds, if not thousands, of comments.
While he was recording, Engler noticed that one of the snakes slithered out. That’s when the other snake, coiled up with its rattle still trembling, saw Engler, who backed down the path, leaving the snake alone.
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Or at least that’s what Engler thought. Someone who watched the videos saw another snake off to the side. What Engler has since learned is that the two snakes were males, fighting for dominance and the right to mate with the likely female waiting nearby.
“They’re not fighting to kill each other,” Engler explained. “It’s a display of dominance.”
Rattlesnakes in Indiana
Nate Engbrecht, a herpetologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, agrees that the two timber rattlesnakes were fighting for dominance and the opportunity to mate. Timber rattlesnakes are an endangered species in Indiana, but are common in Brown and eastern Monroe counties, he said. People may notice more timber rattlesnakes in July and August because this is the reptile’s breeding season and the males are looking for a mate.
In Indiana, Brown and Monroe counties and locations in the Hoosier National Forest are the last remaining core area for timber rattlesnakes, which are found from the East Coast, through the Great Lakes states, and onward. Oklahoma and Kansas, Engbrecht said. If you come across a venomous snake, the timber rattlesnake is a better choice than others, including the copperhead, which is also found in Indiana, she said.
“They’re a pretty tame snake,” said Engbrecht, who was part of a project studying timber rattlesnakes in Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe state forests. “Sometimes they don’t even rattle when you meet them.”
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Engbrecht warned hikers to be careful when crossing fallen trees in timber rattlesnake territory. Snakes are ambush predators and often lie along or near fallen trees waiting for a squirrel or chipmunk to run by. Snakes bite their prey and then use their scent to follow it to where it lies dead from the venom. Their prey range from mice and voles to squirrels and occasionally frogs and salamanders.
Engler, who lives in Indianapolis and attended Indiana University Bloomington, had never worried about running into snakes before. He has now decided that he will wear ankle-high boots and longer pants, not the shorts he had on when he saw the rattlesnakes, when he walks trails in the Deam Wilderness.
“A lot of people said I should have shot them,” he said. “There was no reason to do it, I could just dodge them.”
Help tracking snakes
Whoever told Engler he should have shot the snakes must not have known that timber rattlesnakes are an endangered species in Indiana. People can kill them only when there is an immediate danger to a person’s health and safety, Engbrecht said.
He suspects that many people walk past a timber rattlesnake and never see it, as the snakes often blend in with fallen leaves and debris. In addition to finding snakes next to fallen trees, Engbrecht said that in early spring and late fall, they are often close to their winter lairs. Since timber rattlesnakes can live 20 to 30 years, they often return to the same den and hunting grounds.
“Meeting them has made me appreciate them even more,” Engbrecht said, adding that the snakes know the landscape where they live.
Anyone who sees a timber rattlesnake while in the woods, especially west of Bloomington or in Lawrence or Martin counties, should send a photo and information about where it was seen to email@example.com.
What happens if you get bitten by a snake?
While the chances of being bitten by a venomous snake in Indiana are small, Engbrecht said people need to understand that there are four venomous snakes out of 32 snake species in Indiana. If you are bitten by a venomous snake, you should go to a hospital right away, he said.
Anyone who wants more information should check out what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has on their website at https://bit.ly/3OVRjmR.
Contact Carol Kugler at firstname.lastname@example.org, 812-331-4359, or @ckugler on Twitter.