Famous Snake Researcher Dies After Being Bitten by Rattlesnake in West Virginia

by Emily Morgan

A well-known snake handler has died after being bitten by a rattlesnake in West Virginia last week. He was 80. William “Marty” Martin was a nature lover who turned his childhood fascination with snakes into a career.

For decades, he was a leading authority on the eastern timber rattlesnake. Throughout his life, he combed through Appalachia to track rattler populations and keep them safe from climate change and human encroachment.

He died on Aug. 3 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. According to his wife, Renee Martin, Martin died after a timber rattler bit him on his property in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

With every coming season, he spent his time trekking to various snake dens and hunting for new groups of timber rattlers. “The ambassador of rattlesnakes,” the nature site Terrain.org dubbed him in a profile from 2019.

Although he was elderly, Martin regularly hiked up local mountains to document the snake populations at remote sites, according to Joe Villari, manager of the Bull Run Mountains Preserve in northern Virginia.

“He was in his 80s, and he was hard to keep up with,” said Villari, who often tagged along with Martin on his serpent excursions.

In addition, Martin was known as the country’s leading expert on timber rattlesnakes. The species is notoriously difficult to find. However, Martin had studied the species since he was a child, making him an expert in finding the rattler.

“They’re extremely secretive animals,” John Sealy said, a rattlesnake researcher from Stokesdale, North Carolina. In addition, Martin was quick to advocate for timber rattlers. According to friends and family, he often pointed out that timber rattlers rarely strike without goading.

Longtime rattlesnake advocate dies after fatal bite

Snake bites are rarely fatal. According to the Centers for Disease Control, they account for about five deaths per year in the US. In addition, Dan Keyler, a toxicology professor at the University of Minnesota and an expert on snakebites, said a second snakebite could be more fatal than the first for some.

He added that rattlesnakes could be more dangerous if they grow to a size that allows them to inject more venom into their victim. In addition, a person’s age also affects their susceptibility.

Per his family, Martin had been bitten before in his career but had always recovered. Villari also said that timber rattlers, more often than not, are docile. They also typically avoid human contact and won’t bite even if you accidentally step on them. “They save their venom for their prey,” Villari added.

According to the University of Virginia, nearly 3,000 snakebites are reported to US poison centers yearly, but fewer than ten are lethal.

“There was a time when scientists identified animals as good or bad to man,” Martin said in an interview in 1993, noting that rattlers help control rodent populations. “We don’t look at things like that anymore.”