Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake
(Sistrurus miliarius barbouri)
Last week, I told you all about the largest venomous snake in the United States, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Today, I'd like to tell you about his "dotty little cousin," the dusky pygmy rattlesnake. If diamonds are the hallmark of last week's big boy, polka dots are the hallmark of this week's little guy. And yes, he's a pretty small snake, averaging about 15" to 22" in length, though once in a great while, you might see one a bit larger. I never have, but YOU might. Who knows? I've heard there are a few out there. But being under 18" on average, these guys aren't as long as a full-grown eastern garter snake, which can get up to 28" or longer.
The Dotty Little Cousin,
Duskies are covered in fairly uniform black polka dots
against a lighter grayish tan background,
and often featuring one row of rusty-colored dots down the center of the back.
These are quite bright on some individuals and paler on others.
(Note the difference between the first photo and this one).
They look like you stuck your fingertip in black paint and dotted them all over,
and that's how you distinguish them from any other snake in our area.
Beware those DOTS! The dusky pygmy rattlesnake, which is the subspecies we have in Florida, is pretty small, as I say, but this does not mean it isn't something to be very careful of. They are tiny, but they are also BITEY. In fact, the vast majority of venomous snakebites in Florida are attributed to this little rattler. While I hesitate to suggest reptiles have human emotions or characteristics, I have to say the first word that comes to mind when I see one is "pugnacious." Now this might not always be the fault of the snake. Since they are small, they are easy to overlook, resulting in
people getting too close for the snake's comfort. And a guy's gotta defend himself, after all.
Notice the dots?
And check these next two pics out to see what I mean about size.
Admittedly this is a BABY, but the problem is the same.
Small snake, harder to see, but BABIES are BITEY, too.
Note the blade of grass for size reference
As I say, because duskies are so small even when grown, people often approach way too close before they notice them, which can trigger the snake's defense mechanism and result in a bite. Like most snakes (and other wild animals), they'd really rather be left alone. And as I explained last week, venomous snakes hate to use their primary means of securing food in order to bite something they can't eat. I believe the large number of snakebites attributed to duskies is simply because face-offs between them and humans happen more frequently. They just aren't as easily spotted alongside a wooded trail, or hiding under a plant. Or on one, in this next photo.
Palmettos. Under them or on them, they are often a snake's favorite place to chill.
Until YOU come along, and then, to paraphrase an old song, the chill is gone.
Now, understanding the above will not make you any happier if you do manage to get bitten anyway, so I'm going to suggest that when you are in a natural area in central Florida, you learn to practice being observant. Watch your step, and don't ask for trouble by sticking your hands in places where snakes might hide. Under logs, beneath bushes, behind a rock, etc. There may not be a snake within miles, but why take that chance? After all, there could also be one right in the middle of the path you are following, a la this slightly bigger pygmy. (Um . . . is that an oxymoron?)
Bigger Bitey Boy
As they say at Disney, PUHLEEZE watch your step and back away from situations like the above, until the snake has disappeared into the underbrush. Remember, it's pretty much up to you to stay safe, whether it's from snakes, hornet's nests, or angry raccoons. Wildlife is something to enjoy from a respectful distance, after all.
Now a word or six on snakes in Florida. Last week's post generated a lot of comments from folks who now envision the state as being buried beneath scaly, fanged reptiles, waiting their chance to attack unwary tourists at every opportunity. I'd like to reassure you that while I want folks to learn how to avoid danger when enjoying hiking or camping, the majority of people living in Florida have never seen a snake of any sort around their homes, much less a dangerous one. Yes, they are "out there," but they do try to avoid contact with people, and MOST of the time, they succeed at that. They don't LIKE us. In fact, they probably hate us worse than we hate them. So, you are perfectly safe to join the thousands of people who visit Florida (or move here) on what seems to we natives like a daily basis. I promise your chances of running into trouble of the scaly, bitey kind are minimal. But a wise person once said "Forewarned is forearmed," and that's my goal with these posts.
To bring home my point and put things into perspective, let me show you some interesting statistics. This is the approximate number of snake fatalities per year in the United States, compared to death by other happenstance.
Notice that over 162,000 people die each year from lung cancer. Vehicular accidents cause over 37,000 deaths annually. Lightning strikes, bee stings, dog attacks, and even spider bites kill more people in this country than snake bites. The annual estimate for snake bite fatalities is SIX. Most years, less. In a country this big, with many, many reptiles in various habitats, that's extraordinary. People get bitten now and then, yes, but improved medical care and antivenin (as opposed to anti-VENOM, which isn't actually correct) save lives.
Of course, I realize you don't "come down" with lung cancer because you spent two weeks in Florida, but truly, you are not likely to be bitten by a venomous snake while on vacation. Or if you're from Britain, while on holiday. (Oh, I love it when I'm bilingual! Hahaha.)
Now bear with me, while I share another set of statistics I find fascinating. Even folks who live in the United States think Florida is a hotbed of writhing reptiles, waiting to sink their fangs into random passersby. Well, guess what? When it comes to states with venomous snakes, Florida isn't even listed in the TOP TEN! Nope. Here's the countdown to the number one state for venomous snake species:
10. Missouri - 8
9. S. Carolina - 9
8. Oklahoma - 10
7. Georgia - 10
6. California - 10
5. Mississippi - 10
4. Alabama - 11
3. New Mexico - 12
2. Texas - 15
and the WINNER IS:
1. Arizona - with 19 venomous snakes!!!!
Florida's total of SIX seems miniscule compared to 19! And the timber rattlesnake & copperhead are only found in the panhandle area, in the northern part of the state. So, see? If you are still afraid to vacation in Florida, how will you ever be able to visit Arizona? *shock* (Heck, even I might be nervous about that, though I have tromped through the Anza-Borrego desert in California, looking for, but never finding a single one of the TEN it harbors! Now, don't you feel better about that trip to Disney World next year? *grin*
Here are a few more interesting tidbits about dusky pygmy rattlesnakes. Like all pit vipers, duskies have fangs that fold back against the roof of their mouths when not in use. This is a small view of a small snake. (That's a man's finger behind the head, to give you an idea). The fangs are very tiny, but sharp as needles, and fairly dripping with hemotoxic venom. Being a small snake, the venom glands are equally small, so the amount of venom this guy can inject is not a lot, but it can cause some very, very painful bites, with necrosis working away at destroying tissue and blood. If the snake is full grown, unlike this tiny one, the amount of venom the snake chooses to inject can cause disfigurement and even amputation of fingers or toes. You won't die. But you sure as heck won't be having fun for a while.
I also talked last week about the fact that all pit vipers give birth to live young, via a process quite different from mammals. Here's how it works, again. Most snakes are oviparous. (They lay eggs in a sheltered spot, under a log, or something similar). Pit vipers, which include rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads, are ovoviviparous. This means that the female snake carries those eggs inside her body until they hatch, and then gives birth to them. It's a system that keeps the eggs significantly safer from predators than they would be simply lying under a log. And that translates to a higher survival rate for these snakes. So, you'll never find a clutch of rattlesnake eggs anywhere, which might be a good thing for you, as well as for the snakes.
The rust-colored spots down the spine of this little guy are quite bright,
though they may be a softer color on other individuals.
Dusky pygmy rattlesnakes usually give birth to 5 to 7 babies at a time, and the babies measure between 6.2" to 6.8" in length. The longest wild dusky pygmy rattlesnake on record was found in St. Petersburg, Florida, and measured 25.1" or just over two feet. I have seen five or six of these guys over time, and none was over 18 inches, which is about average for an adult.
Here's a typical baby dusky with a penny for size comparison.
Notice the polka dotted pattern, and the start of the rusty colored spots
down the center of the back, which is the only place that color appears.
The range of the dusky pygmy rattlesnake extends north to South Carolina, and west into Alabama, Missouri, and Louisiana. It is a subspecies, as I mention above, so it's possible that its range overlaps with that of the other pygmy rattlesnakes, though not in Florida. The dusky is the only one we have here.
Tiny Little Snake with Tiny Little Rattles
One last caution for you. As you can see in this picture, the dusky pygmy rattler does have rattles, but they are very, very small. Even when they aren't damaged, the noise they make is more like an insect buzzing than anything that would really alert you that a pugnacious, bitey little guy is close. So at the risk of sounding repetitive, please remember to keep your eyes open when you are in any area where snakes are often found. Look sharp, and you should be just fine.
That pretty much wraps up this week's post, and finishes off my four part series on Florida's venomous snakes. I hope you've enjoyed learning about all of them, and have memorized the easiest ways to recognize them. I also hope you won't go randomly bashing snakes over the head with stout sticks. They have a VERY important job to do. Remember, they do not carry a single disease that harms humans, while a large portion of their daily diet consists of things that do. Like rats and mice. Without snakes, our homes would be overrun with vermin that are far more likely to cause us health issues than any snake would be.
Next week, I'll be focusing on something which for some of you will have less of a shiver factor. I'm pretty sure it will have feathers instead of scales, but in the interest of surprising you, I won't be more specific than that.
Thanks, Marcia. Great post packed full of information. Although it makes perfect sense when I think about it, I've visited Arizona and never thought once about snakes. (I went to a conference in Boca Raton once but didn't have a chance to explore Florida, unfortunately). The ones with brighter rusty colour are quite striking (yes, and bitey, I guess).
Glad you enjoyed the post, Olga, and thanks for taking the time to answer. I'm sorry it isn't always easy to reply on this blog, and am hoping to get that changed. Believe it or not, I have to sign up myself, almost every time.
As I always try to stress, while it's good to be able to recognize venomous snakes, even in states where there are lots of different species, they aren't behind every bush or hanging from every tree (or cactus). I'm glad you have visited both Florida and Arizona, and lived to tell the tale! So have a kajillion others, so it must be relatively safe to do so. When you come back to Florida, let me know, and I'll take you on the river cruise so you can see manatees and alligators and loads of birds, in a comfortable, relaxing manner. You'd love it.
No. Just... no. Deadly snakes should not be the size of coins. When I think of all the times I've been to Florida and didn't know the horrors waiting to attack!
Great post, Marcia. But, again... no!
Now, now, Staci. I went to great lengths to assure readers that this little guy is definitely NOT deadly. Yep, he'll give you a nasty bite IF you get too close or try to pick him up, but he will most assuredly NOT kill you. IN fact, there has never been a death attributed to the dusky pygmy rattlesnake, not even a SMALL person's. Of course, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes start out small, too--just nowhere near as small as this one.
And for me, it's a solid yes. Just . . . YES! Snakes are majorly cool, in spite of the bad (and usually erroneous) press they receive and all the screaming and running involved upon spotting one. Now take a deep breath, and go back and RE-read the part about how they are NOT waiting to attack you. Keep reading it until it imprints itself in your brain, and you relax a bit. Can't have you having the vapors or anything, you know.
And say . . . don't you live in one of those Top Ten states? Maybe you should consider a move to Florida, where we don't have nearly so many legless ones to worry you. Just sayin' . . . . . . . .
*happy sigh* My work here is done!