The pygmy rattlesnake, Sistrurus miliarius, is a thick-bodied, small rattlesnake commonly called a pygmy rattler or ground rattler. With the adult snake averaging 13 to 30 inches (35.5 to 76 cm) in length, this pitviper has a small rattle that is rarely heard and, if it is heard, it often is described as sounding like the buzzing of an insect. The venomous snake is endemic to the southern United States, where it is colloquially referred to as a “buzzworm.”
Unlike larger rattlesnakes, the pygmy rattlesnake has nine large scales on the top of its triangular head. The snake’s coloring can be red, gray, tan, lavender or orange, and it includes a row of dark dorsal spots with an orange to red dorsal stripe. The underside of the snake is white with copious dark spots. The juvenile pygmy rattlesnake has a yellow tail that it uses to lure prey and that darkens as the snake matures. The snake’s rattle string often is six to eight segments, and in more than half of snakes, it is just three segments.
The pygmy rattlesnake is reclusive by nature and is most often found hidden in leaf litter. The snakes sometimes are arboreal and have been observed as high as 10 feet (3 m) in trees. From these locations, the snakes ambush lizards, frogs, snakes, small mammals and insects. The pygmy rattlesnake injects its prey with venom and then releases it. The snake then tracks the prey by scent after it has died.
The female pygmy rattlesnake gives birth to three to 11 live young in the late summer to early fall. Courtship and mating occurs between late summer and mid-winter. Males engage in combat rituals with the victorious male winning the right to mate with the female. Copulation might last for several hours, and the mated pair often will remain together for several days, with one snake coiled on top of the other. The female snake stores the male’s sperm until mid-spring, when it fertilizes her eggs.
The three pygmy rattlesnake subspecies are the Carolina pygmy, Sistrurus miliarius streckeri; the dusky pygmy, Sistrurus miliarius barbouri; and the western pygmy, Sistrurus miliarius streckeri. The pygmy rattlesnake is found in a variety of environments, including wooded, riparian, coastal and marsh habitats. The pygmy is venomous, but there have been no known instances in which a bite from the snake has been fatal to a human. The pygmy rattler is protected in some places, including North Carolina and Tennessee.