William “Marty” Martin, a renowned snake researcher who dedicated his life’s work to the study of timber rattlesnakes, died last week after he was bitten by a snake on the property of his West Virginia home, his wife said. He was 80.
Martin, who was described as the “ambassador of rattlesnakes” in a 2019 profile on the online journal Terrain, was just 13 years old when he documented the first instance of timber rattlesnakes in the Bull Run Mountains in Virginia.
At the age of 17, he became a founding member of the Virginia Herpetological Society, and for 30 years he served on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s timber rattlesnake task force, which worked to preserve the species, according to Reptiles Magazine.
Martin also co-authored the 472-page book “The Timber Rattlesnake: Life History, Distribution, Status, and Conservation Action Plan,” which was released in August 2021.
Joe Villari, manager of the Bull Run Mountains Preserve, paid tribute to Martin in a lengthy Facebook post, calling him “a true original in every sense of the word” and “a human of mythic proportions — a being far more rare than the threatened and endangered snakes to which he dedicated his life.”
Villari, who was also a friend of the “absolute rattlesnake legend,” noted that Martin acted as one of snakes’ “earliest ambassadors — far before the eruption of the ecological and animal welfare enlightenment of the 1970s.”
His happiness was “intrinsically tied to the presence and well-being of venomous snake populations, especially his beloved timbers,” he wrote, adding that at the age of 80, “he was more physically capable than most 20-year-olds that I have scrambled across the mountain with.”
John Sealy, a rattlesnake researcher from Stokesdale, said that Martin was considered by many in the community of snake experts as the foremost authority on timber rattlers, a species he studied since childhood.
“They’re extremely secretive animals,” Sealy told The Associated Press.
According to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, the timber rattlesnake — also called the American viper, black rattlesnake, eastern rattlesnake, timber rattler and canebrake — is a large pit viper with a wide distribution across the eastern half of the U.S.
Adult timber rattlesnakes can reach lengths of up to 5 feet, though there are reports of some growing up to 7 feet long.
Deaths from snakebites in the U.S. are rare, according to data released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Each year, an estimated 7,000–8,000 people are bitten by venomous snakes in the U.S., but only about five of those people die.