Species Profile: The Pygmy Rattlesnake

The Pygmy rattlesnake was never what I pictured in my head when thinking about big rattlesnakes. When I hear the name “rattlesnake,” I can always hear the sound of their haunting rattles. I always pictured giant snakes that could engulf me in a single strike, but the more I learn about them, the more exciting they become!

So what is a Pygmy rattlesnake? The Pygmy rattlesnake is a general description of a small rattlesnake that lives in the Eastern part of the United States. They are relatively common and go by many names. Depending on the place, their definition varies.

Knowledge is the first step on the road to power, and I want all the power I can have over these slithering serpents! Little did I know, I would actually come to like snakes more the more time I spent learning about them. Once again, I have set off on an internet journey to discover what this snake is all about!

Types of Pygmy (Pigmy) Rattlesnakes

I grew up spending a lot of time in the deserts of Arizona, so I would always hear stories about the dangers I needed to avoid. My grandpa would tell stories of his run-ins with rattlesnakes while hiking.

Even though nothing terrible ever happened in those stories, I was fascinated by the tales of danger and “near-death” experiences. As a 9 year old, snakes were public enemy #1 and if you got near enough to see one, you were lucky to escape with your life.

I never knew how many different kinds of rattlesnakes there were. I always just assumed that “rattlesnake” was what they were. The deeper I looked into the subject, the more I realized how wrong I was.

Rattlesnakes aren’t just found in stereotypical sandy deserts, they are far-reaching in their influence! The Pygmy rattlesnake, for example, can be found anywhere from Florida to Texas all along the South Eastern part of the United States.

Pygmy Rattlesnakes are venomous and go by many different names. Most of the names are centered around the snake’s size and make it distinguishable from other rattlesnakes. Some of the generic ones you’ll find are listed below:

  • spotted rattlesnake
  • pigmy ground rattlesnake
  • ground rattler
  • grey rattlesnake
  • bastard rattlesnake
  • southern rattlesnake
  • dwarf rattlesnake
  • small rattlesnake

The Pygmy rattlesnake is considered to be a part, or at least closely related, to the pit viper family.

Although a general form of Pygmy rattlesnakes is found in many states, there are a few subspecies that carry special names. The major dictating factors of these rattlers are the varying color they are known to be and the places they are found in the United States.

These special Pygmy rattlesnakes can be referred to as Carolina Pigmy Rattlers, Dusky Pigmy Rattlers, or Western Pygmy Rattlesnakes.

Pygmy vs. Pigmy

From what I’ve found in my research, the spelling of the name does not change the species of snake. Some people seem to just prefer to use to “i” instead of a “y” in Pygmy (Pigmy).

When authors talk about the subspecies, they typically will use the “Pigmy” version. I don’t know if this is a demographic thing or not, but the spelling of the name seems to be interchangeable in many different sources. For the purpose of referring to the “Pygmy Rattlesnake” in general during this post, I will use the “Pygmy” way of spelling.

Size

The word “pygmy” refers to groups of things that are much smaller than normal. This is a perfect description for this rattlesnake because they are significantly smaller than a lot of the snakes you see in the United States. They are, in fact, the smallest of the rattlesnake species.’

An adult Pygmy will usually hover around the length of 15-20 inches. The babies are very small and can be close to the size of juicy worms when born.

A study done by Stetson University compares the small size of a baby Pygmy to a quarter coin when they are curled up. Their research has been mainly conducted in Florida, but they have tested many samples finding interesting information about these snakes.

Something they discovered was that Pygmy rattlesnakes reach maturity and full size a little faster than most snakes. They will be fully grown in almost 2 years which makes their growth rapid in the early stages of their life.

It’s not really an impressive statistic when you take a tiny snake and watch it grow into a relatively small snake, but the speed of growth is the impressive part.

You would think that a small snake wouldn’t be as threatening or scary as one that reaches 4 or 5 feet, but the Pygmy rattlesnake will not be ignored! It is common in the east and can be a threat of its own if you’re not careful. 

Habitat

These snakes are located most densely in the South Eastern part of the United States of America. Common places include Missouri, Florida, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and both North and South Carolina. 

They are most likely to be found in areas that have bodies of water including marshes, creeks, rivers, lakes, etc. They inhabit forested areas and like the cover and protection of a dense forest floor.

They also want to be in a place that gets plenty of sunshine because they enjoy basking out in the open occasionally. Most of their time is spent hiding under piles of natural debris, but they will emerge for the occasional sun tanning session.

Food

These rattlers are not picky eaters! They are carnivorous and will eat any meat they can get their fangs in to. Common meals for a Pygmy include rats, mice, small squirrels, and various reptiles such as toads and lizards. The Pygmy rattlesnake will also eat other small snakes that they can catch. 

They are well regarded in their areas of residence because they sometimes make a meal out of buzzing insects they can find. This helps keep insect pest numbers within a reasonable amount. Now I’m not saying that they are the sole reason that insects aren’t taking over the South Eastern states, but they sure aren’t helping the insect population grow!

Of course, a lot of this information can be found on snake removal websites, so their opinion may be skewed a little by the general nature of their profession.

The Pygmy will almost always go for food that is smaller than it is, so there are not many species of snake that it will try to hunt down. Mice, rats, and small reptiles are the main food source for these snakes. 

Hunting

Pygmy rattlesnakes remind me, vaguely, of Fangtooth Snake Eels by their hunting style. Fangtooth Snake Eels hunt by hiding themselves on the sandy floor of a body of water and strike at prey suddenly as they swim by. 

Pygmy rattlesnake are very similar to that watery predator but on a dry land scale. They like to hide in leaf piles or other debris waiting for unsuspecting victims to cross their path. Once lunch shows up completely ignorant of the impending danger, the Pygmy snaps out of the hiding place and grabs its prey. 

Venom

Pygmy rattlesnakes are indeed venomous, but they aren’t a real threat when compared to other dangerous snakes. The venom produced by these snakes is relatively weak.

The danger comes from the fact that these snakes are very common near places where humans will accidentally come across them. The Pygmy is a nocturnal snake and will move, hunt, and slither around all night. That doesn’t automatically mean that the day is safe, however.

These snakes can sometimes be found on rocks or in walking paths because they want to be in the direct path of the sun. This makes them easy to stumble upon.

Another factor that makes it easy to suddenly come across this snake is their relatively quiet rattle. The size of the rattlesnake definitely determines the size of their warning rattler.

Like typical rattlesnakes, the Pygmy rattlesnake will shake its rattle to warn predators or threats that they are coming too close. The small rattle, however, makes the sound very quiet and hard to pick up if you’re caught unawares. This has been the cause of many Pygmy bites for humans throughout the years.

The venom of the snake is not enough to kill you, but it is vitally important to seek medical attention quickly after a bite. Pygmies are not known for one quick attack and then a quick get away. These snakes will bite you multiple times if they feel threatened.

The venom they contain is likely to cause a great amount of bleeding, and it’s important to remember that even if venom is minimal, it’s still venom! It’s important to have a medical professional treat the bite as soon as possible. 

Aggresion

To quote the great William Shakespeare, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” This quote, although intended to be about a human, is very fitting for the Pygmy rattlesnake.

Their general size is relatively small compared to other rattlesnakes, but this doesn’t minimize their ferocity.

These snakes are known for their aggressive nature towards humans.

Their color makes good camouflage when they are curled beneath piles of leaves on the floor of a forested area. They will either choose to run away or stay perfectly still hoping to go unnoticed.

The danger comes when they are coiled and ready to strike. This definitely shows the importance of staying vigilant and cautious when in areas known to contain Pygmy rattlesnakes.

It seems that a lot of encounters with Pygmies happen when they are found on the roadways. Asphalt is appealing to snakes because of its ability to warm up as the sun gets more intense. This means that a lot of Pygmy rattlers will decide to sun themselves right there on the roadway with plenty of human traffic. Pun intended!

Reproduction

Pygmy rattlesnakes follow the same reproductive behavior as other rattlesnakes. They give birth to live young instead of going through the hassle of making an egg, populating it, laying the egg, then waiting months for it to hatch! That’s not a very accurate representation of the egg-laying process, but the point is that Pygmies don’t do it!

Giving birth to live young is relatively rare within the snake world. About 30% of all snake species give birth to live young. That means that 70% of all snakes lay eggs!

The litter that a Pygmy has is also pretty small. They will have anywhere between 3-10 young depending on circumstance and the individual snake mother’s health and size. The births of these snakes are known to take place later in the summer or early on in the fall.

The coloring of the Pygmy babies is usually lighter or more varied than that of adults. As they grow, they will become more attuned to their natural environments by way of color. The reds, browns, grays, and tans found in typical Pygmy rattlers help them remain unnoticed when hiding among leaves and earth on the forest floor.

Subspecies

The Pygmy Rattlesnake has three different subspecies that are interesting to learn about. At the beginning of this post, I talked a little about the presence of subspecies among Pygmy rattlesnakes, and the three well-known ones include:

  1. Carolina Pygmy Rattlesnake
  2. Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake
  3. Western Pygmy Rattlesnake

There is not a wide variety of factors that separate these subspecies from generally found Pygmy rattlesnakes. The main difference between them is the state in which they are common.

They will have slightly different habitats they prefer and their colorings may differ, but other than that these snakes are the same. They will eat the same things, reproduce the same way, and remain the same size as others of the Pygmy species.

I explore each of these subsets in the chart below:


Carolina Pigmy Rattler

Dusky Pigmy
Rattler
Western Pigmy Rattlesnake
States Found in:Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, AlabamaGeorgia, South Carolina, FLorida, MississippiKentucky, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma
Color:
Grey, Tan, Lavender
Bluish Gray, BlackRed, Orange, Light Brown, Gray
Habitat:Dry sand hills and pine forestsNear marshes and other bodies of water; common in various placesMix

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” I’m feeling very Shakespearean today. This quote really helps illustrate the fact that a Pygmy rattlesnake in one place is pretty much just a Pygmy rattlesnake in another.

Their color, place of residence, and general habitat may be different but their diet, behavior, and size don’t change much at all.

Related Questions

How dangerous are Pygmy rattlesnakes? The Pygmy rattlesnake is not considered a highly dangerous snake. They are venomous, but they are very small and do not produce enough venom to be a threat to a human life. The venom can cause a lot of bleeding and should be treated by a medical professional as soon as possible. All snake bites should be taken seriously.

Where do you find Pygmy rattlesnakes? Pygmy rattlesnakes are commonly found on the South East side of the United States. They have been known to populate several states including North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Missouri, and Mississippi. They like to be in areas with a lot of trees, and can be found in places near water (marshes, creeks, lakes, rivers, etc.).

How big is a Pygmy rattlesnake? The name “Pygmy” means a small version of something. The Pygmy rattlesnake is between 15 and 25 inches in length typically. They are the smallest species of rattlesnake in the United States. They are small but substantial creatures. The babies are tiny and can be compared to the size of a coin, but they develop in length very quickly throughout their lives. 

Ashley Gallenbeck

Writing is my passion. I am a student, and I absolutely love to learn about and discover new things.

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