Photo Credit: Scott Boback
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Sistrurus miliarius
OTHER NAMES: Also spelled “pygmy” rattlesnake, ground rattler
STATUS: Uncommon to rare. Statewide in distribution, but rarely encountered in recent years except in extreme southern Alabama. Believed to be declining. Includes subspecies S.m. miliarius (Carolina pigmy rattlesnake), S.m. barbouri (dusky pigmy rattlesnake), and S.m. streckeri (western pigmy rattlesnake). MODERATE CONSERVATION CONCERN.
DESCRIPTION: There are three subspecies of pigmy rattlesnakes (Carolina pigmy, dusky pigmy and western pigmy), all of which occur in Alabama. Generally, pigmy rattlesnakes, as their name would imply, are miniature rattlesnakes. Sometimes referred to as “ground rattlers”, they range in length from 15 to 24 inches at maturity, and when in a coiled position are roughly the size of a loblolly pine cone. The tip of their tail contains a very small delicate rattle or button that is not much wider than the end of the tail itself. When vibrated for a warning, the rattle is often difficult to hear and has been compared to the sound of an insect buzzing.
Carolina pigmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius miliarius) is pale gray to reddish above with prominent markings, one or two rows of spots on sides, usually with 23 scale rows.
Dusky pigmy rattlesnake (S. m. barbouri) is dark gray above with heavy black stippling obscuring pattern, with 23-25 scale rows.
Western pigmy rattlesnake (S. m. streckeri) is pale grayish-brown above with blotches forming crossbars, 2 rows of spots on sides, usually with 21 scale rows.
DISTRIBUTION: In Alabama, Carolina pigmy rattlesnakes occur across the northern one-third of the state and in the eastern portion of the state southward to Lee County. Dusky pigmy rattlesnakes are restricted to the Lower Coastal Plain, typically in sandy pinelands and scrubby areas. The western pigmy rattlesnake is found only in the extreme western portion of central Alabama, although the limits are not exactly known. All of these subspecies cross-breed and intergrades are found throughout most of the state. Outside of Alabama, pigmy rattlesnakes are found throughout Florida and Florida Keys, west to Oklahoma and Texas, north through Tennessee and into Kentucky, and east to North Carolina.
HABITAT: This species is found in a variety of habitats including everglades prairies, palmetto-pine flatwoods, sandhills, mixed pine-hardwood forests, borders of cypress ponds, and in the vicinity of lakes and marshes. One note is that they are seldom found in extremely dry habitats.
FEEDING HABITS: As is typical of pit vipers, pigmy rattlesnakes prefer to sit and wait for prey to pass by. While waiting for prey, they will remain in a coiled position, sometimes for up to three weeks. Although they prefer to sit and wait on prey, pigmy rattlesnakes will also actively hunt for prey and it is believed they will use their tail as a lure. They have been reported to feed on mice, lizards, frogs, nesting birds, insects, centipedes and spiders.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Pigmy rattlesnakes are most often encountered during late summer as they are crossing roads in late afternoon or night. Some might be very aggressive and strike with little provocation, while others might seem lethargic. When approached by humans, they often lie motionless as a defense mechanism to avoid detection. As noted above, many Alabamians refer to them as “ground rattlers”, which leads to considerable confusion, being that many people use the name loosely for any snake they cannot identify. There are no documented cases of death caused by a pigmy rattler, although a bite can be very painful and could cause the loss of a digit.
Mating often occurs between September and January. Once copulation is completed, the female stores the sperm from her mate until the following April, when the embryos begin to develop. At this point the female will spend a considerable amount of time basking in the sun to speed up the development of the young. Pigmy rattlesnakes give birth to 3-10 babies between July and September. The newborns typically remain very close (within a couple of feet) to the mother for the first several days or until they complete their first shed. The life span has been recorded to exceed 15 years, with average life span in captivity being 16.1 years.
Kalis, D. 2003. “Sistrurus miliarius”, Animal Diversity Web.
Knopf, Alfred A. 1979. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Chanticleer Press, Inc. New York, P. 697-698, plate 641, 642, 645.
Mirarchi, Ralph E. 2004. Alabama Wildlife, Volume One. The University of Alabama Press, Alabama, P. 128.
Mount, Robert H. 1975. The Reptiles and Amphibians of Alabama. Auburn Printing Company, Alabama. 347 pp.
AUTHOR: Jud Easterwood, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries