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When we think of young animals making their first appearance in the wild, the season of spring comes into mind. Animals born during spring’s improving weather have several months of warm climate and plentiful food to grow, thrive and gain independence before winter’s bitter cold returns. Animals such as the black bear get a head start. In the middle of winter, they’re born in their dens and are nursed by their mothers. They emerge from the den in April, already a couple of months old and able to make their first awkward steps outside.
There are some animals whose breeding cycles do not follow this norm, and their young appear later in the season. Many snakes lay eggs in the middle of summer, which means the young hatch late in the season. The timber rattlesnake is the species that pushes the edge of the envelope; females bear live young in early September, which means that the young may have only a couple of weeks outside before they have move to their hibernacula near the end of the month.
As explained in the August 28 “Rivertalk,” female rattlesnakes store the sperm from last summer’s mating and then hibernate over winter. The eggs were fertilized with the stored sperm this past spring. Gestation took the entire time from spring emergence until early September, when females bear their young. The females and their young may appear together at gestation basking sites.
So, what are baby rattlesnakes like? These newborn timber rattlesnakes (neonates) appear as miniature adults, though they don’t have the color phases of the adults yet. Their patterns are very distinct with gray shades, all the way to the tail. The first shed occurs about a week after birth; at this time, the first rattle can be seen. Neonates will disperse after seven to 10 days of age and may have a couple of weeks to roam before they follow the adults scent trails to the hibernaculum. There was a rumor that neonate rattlesnakes don’t bite; that is not true. Newborn rattlesnakes possess hollow fangs and venom capable of envenoming small prey or human hands alike. Do not handle neonates.