Pygmy Rattlesnakes: Small, Still Dangerous
While its Eastern Diamondback cousin is down as the largest venomous snake in the United States, known to reach eight feet in length, the pygmy rattler, true to its name, is lucky to reach a quarter of that size. Nevertheless, in its environment it is a fierce and effective hunter, thriving in wooded areas, around marshes and near lakes and rivers in about a dozen southern and southeastern states.
There are three subspecies of the rattlers, which range in color from gray, tan, orange and red, to bluish-gray and nearly black. They have clearly define rows of well-define spots running the length of their bodies, which are tipped with a small rattle. Thick-bodied like their larger cousins, they nevertheless rarely attain six ounces in weight. The western pygmy is the smallest venomous snake in the United States.
All rattlers are ovoviparous, meaning that their fertilized eggs remain in the female’s body rather than being expelled to hatch in a nest. Female pygmy rattlers retain the eggs within their bodies for up to six months, at which time the infants hatch and are expelled as live young. Normally the female snake gives birth to between five and eight young, but up to 12 hatchlings have been known. At birth, the babies are on their own and if they survive they will mature sexually in two- to four years with a potential life span of up to 20.
The pygmy’s rattle is not loud and is generally more useful in attracting curious prey than it is for frightening off intruders. Their bite is painful to humans and can be destructive to body tissue, but is usually not life-threatening. Not so for the carnivorous snakes’ prey, which consists of mice, small rats and squirrels, birds and other reptiles such as frogs, toads, lizards and other snakes.
Night-hunters, the snakes often spend their days absorbing sunshine from the vantage of a flat rock. When hunting, they often remain still, allow their prey to approach to investigate the buzzing sound of their rattle. When the prey draws close enough, the pygmies strike, inject their venom and release the victim. Their sensitive pits allow the snakes to track their victims while the venom does its work.
Pygmy rattlers are quite reclusive, and like to conceal themselves in piles of leaves, tree root channels, and in the burrows of animals such as gophers where a number of the snakes may shelter together during cold weather.
Besides being ecological partners in controlling vermin, the snakes have been valuable in the laboratory as well: their venom was useful in the development of a drug now used to prevent clotting during a heart attack.
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