Q: How dangerous are the two types of poisonous snakes in southwest Wisconsin, and how common are they? 

A: Wisconsin has two species of venomous snakes, both rattlesnakes: the eastern massasauga and the timber rattler. They are found in southwest Wisconsin, but neither is especially common. The massasauga, in fact, is so uncommon it is classified as an endangered species. 

"They are not easy to find, even if you're intentionally searching for them," notes Scott Craven, a UW-Madison professor of wildlife and forest ecology. The massasauga is a medium-sized snake and prefers lowland forests and wetlands. The timber rattler is also found, for the most part, in the southwestern quarter of Wisconsin. It seems to prefer deciduous forests, but they can turn up in open fields and backyards. Pregnant females seem to prefer open, rocky ledges where temperatures are higher. 

Craven notes the timber rattler suffered from years of bounty hunting and habitat loss in Wisconsin, but is now a protected wild species. They, too, are not common, but they can be concentrated around hibernation sites. Because the snakes are relatively rare, and because of improvements in obtaining emergency medical care, the risk the snakes pose to humans is small, says Craven. 

"Statistically, there has been only one documented rattlesnake-related death in Wisconsin since 1900. No venom is injected in perhaps 25-50 percent of bites. The bottom line is we do many things on a daily basis that pose much greater risk than the bite of two rare species of Wisconsin snake," Craven avers.

If you live in rattler country, Craven suggests becoming familiar with the key features that distinguish rattlers from harmless bull snakes and fox snakes.

- Produced in cooperation with University Communications

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