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What is a Pygmy Rattlesnake?

By Bethney Foster
Updated May 21, 2024
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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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Pygmy Rattlesnake?

A Pygmy Rattlesnake, also known as Sistrurus miliarius, is a small venomous snake native to the southeastern United States. It's characterized by its compact size, typically reaching 15 to 24 inches in length, and its distinctive rattle which is proportionally smaller than those of other rattlesnake species. Despite their size, they possess potent venom used for subduing prey.

Where can Pygmy Rattlesnakes be found?

Pygmy Rattlesnakes are found in a variety of habitats ranging from wetlands to dry pine forests, predominantly in the southeastern United States. They are adaptable and can be found in states like Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and parts of Missouri. Their presence is often indicated by their unique buzzing rattle when threatened.

How dangerous is the Pygmy Rattlesnake to humans?

While the Pygmy Rattlesnake's venom is toxic and can cause significant pain, swelling, and tissue damage, bites are rarely fatal to humans. However, any venomous snake bite should be treated as a medical emergency. According to the Florida Museum, fatalities from Pygmy Rattlesnake bites are extremely rare, but immediate medical attention is crucial.

What do Pygmy Rattlesnakes eat?

Pygmy Rattlesnakes have a diet consisting mainly of small rodents, lizards, frogs, and occasionally insects. They are ambush predators, using their camouflage to surprise prey and inject venom to immobilize it. Their feeding habits play a role in controlling the populations of their prey species in their ecosystems.

How can you identify a Pygmy Rattlesnake?

Identifying a Pygmy Rattlesnake involves looking for key features such as a stocky body, a distinct pattern of dark bands or spots along its back, and a small, less pronounced rattle at the end of its tail. They also have a heat-sensing pit between the eye and nostril on each side of the head, typical of pit vipers.

Are Pygmy Rattlesnakes protected or endangered?

Pygmy Rattlesnakes are not currently listed as endangered, but their populations are affected by habitat destruction and human encroachment. Some subspecies, like the Carolina Pygmy Rattlesnake, are considered to be of conservation concern in certain states due to habitat loss and are protected under state laws to prevent further decline.

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Discussion Comments

By BabaB — On Aug 31, 2011

Fortunately, I live in the northwest region of the U.S., so we have no poisonous snakes here. I'm surprised that rattlesnakes, namely pygmy rattlers, live in the south. I always thought they always lived in hot,dry and desert-like habitats. It's scary to think that they go up in trees waiting for their prey - sneaky little critters!

I've heard that it is really important to get to a hospital or doctor as soon as possible if you are bit by a rattlesnake. From what I understand, as soon as the snake's venom enters the body, enzymes begin to be produced and these enzymes start eating away or destroying tissue. I've never seen a rattlesnake, but I have heard the rattle once.

By matthewc23 — On Aug 31, 2011

@jmc88 - You are exactly right. Any type of snake, whether venomous or not should never be taken lightly. A snake that is venomous is poisonous because a human being is not supposed to have its venom released inside their body. Even in minute amounts the venom can cause some nerve problems and can even cause the tissue of the bite to die. Although a pygmy rattlesnake may not release much venom it can definitely cause this to happen if someone does not receive medical attention.

Even a snake that is not venomous is something to worry about. Snake bites from non-venomous snakes are loaded with bacteria and can cause severe infections and in a worst case scenario substantial damage to the tissue.

No one should ever take a snake bite lightly and if one is bitten they need to see a doctor, whether or not it is venomous, just to be on the safe side.

By jmc88 — On Aug 30, 2011

@JimmyT - Although the amount of venom is usually more concentrated in smaller versions of venomous snakes, that same thought does not apply for the pygmy rattlesnake.

The pygmy rattlesnake is a sub-species of the rattlesnakes and is its own version of the rattlesnake and has its own regular venom exchange. The pygmy rattlesnake releases a moderate amount of venom that rarely results in fatalities. The venom exchange is so mild that it is almost a guarantee that as long as there is medical treatment available the person will have no major problems. Despite the mild venom exchange of the pygmy rattlesnake, people should not take these snakes lightly, it is still a venomous and aggressive snake that is small and sneaky.

By SarahSon — On Aug 29, 2011

There is some comfort in knowing that pygmy rattlesnake venom is not fatal, but I still don't like to see them.

Once when we were in southern Florida, we came across a ground rattler. The snake knew we were there before we knew it was there, and it was ready to strike.

I'm sure glad we saw it soon enough, and were able to get away from it. I don't even like looking at pictures of snakes or seeing them on TV, so this was a bit unnerving for me.

My plan is to always stay as far away from any kind of snake as possible.

By JimmyT — On Aug 29, 2011

@Emilski - I am in total agreement with you. The smaller snakes scare me a whole lot more than the bigger snakes because they have less body mass, so they are harder to hear. Also, the smaller snakes size makes them already that much harder to see. On top of all this their release of venom, like you said, is not as controlled, so the smaller snakes could release all the venom they have when a large perceived predator comes for them.

My uncle once got bitten by a small copperhead and he freaked immediately and made a bigger deal out of it than when he got bit by a large copperhead. Granted, both times he did go to the hospital but just for the reason that it was a smaller venomous snake and probably released more venom into the bite caused him to take the situation more seriously. I imagine pygmy rattlesnakes are the same way and I would not want to run into one.

By Emilski — On Aug 28, 2011

I live in Eastern Illinois and although we do not have pygmy rattlers, we do have copperhead snakes and occasionally a timber rattlesnake.

Thankfully I have had very few experiences with the rattlesnakes but I have had a few experiences with small copperheads and this is not a good thing. The smaller snakes do not control their release of venom as well as the more grown snakes and this may apply to the pygmy rattlers. Worst thing about the smaller snakes is that they are harder to see and you sometimes cannot even hear them moving in the brush. Although small the smaller snakes that are venomous can be more deadly because of this aspect.

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