How dangerous is a Pygmy Rattlesnake?

Pygmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius)

Something wriggled next to my foot, as I stooped at a decaying stump and photographed a beetle. As it unfolded and slithered past my leg, I gazed in appreciation. Then, it’s pattern suddenly registered! I stepped back, realizing it was a Pygmy Rattlesnake, a venomous snake common throughout the southeastern United States.

It’s a small snake – one to two feet in length (30-60 cm) – and often goes unnoticed. Its patterning provides effective camouflage as it lies in a mix of soil and leaf litter and, when threatened, it lies motionless and flattens itself against the ground.

This snake is non-aggressive, and most bites happen when it’s accidentally stepped on and the snake strikes defensively. Fortunately, since the snake is usually surprised, it rarely has time to fill its fangs with venom, so most bites are dry and cause minimal damage.

Although a bite by a Pygmy Rattlesnake isn’t considered life-threatening to adults or larger pets, it should still be treated. The venom is strong enough to cause the loss of a finger or toe. Although no one has died of a Pygmy Rattlesnake bite, the venom is considered life-threatening to small children and small animals.

But, it’s best to be careful and avoid the bite in the first place. As is typical of healthcare in the United States, a single bite can bankrupt a family. A vial of antivenom costs between $10,000 to $20,000, and treatment may take several—even many—vials.

In 2018, one boy in Hernando County, Florida, received 18 vials.

A 6-year-old in Oklahoma received 38! Apparently this was due to the fact that the child wasn’t responding to the treatment (so why didn’t they stop at…  say ten?). Apparently, snake venoms evolve over time and become resistant to the antivenoms we might have on hand.

After learning more about snake bites – and now fearful that a hospital might steal all of my money and leave me homeless – I think I’ll try out Altra hiking boots. Pygmy rattlers have small fangs, and I think it would be difficult for them to penetrate an adult shoe.

But I don’t want to end this article dwelling on potential medical costs. Instead I’ll end with an interesting fact.

Female Pygmy Rattlesnakes mate in the fall and winter, and then store the received sperm until spring. As the eggs are held within her body, she hastens the development of the embryos by laying in the sun. Three to five months after fertilization, the eggs hatch inside her body. She then gives birth to up to fourteen live young.

For several days, or until the youngsters’ first shed, Mom stays within a couple feet of her offspring.

The newborn ambush-predators have an early hunting advantage. They have bright yellow tail tips, which they wriggle to attract insect predators.

Pygmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius)

REFERENCES

Florida Museum. Florida Snake ID Guide:  Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake:  Sistrurus miliarius barbouri.

Outdoor Alabama. Pygmy Rattlesnake.

The Journal of Emergency Medicine. Nathan Kostick, MS, Kevin O’Loughlin, MD. June 23, 2021.

Michael Paluska. Family faces tens of thousands in medical bills after boy gets bitten by venomous snake. CBS FOX 59. April 4, 2018.

The Associated Press. Seattle Times. Oklahoma sees increase in pygmy rattlesnake bites. October 2, 2017.

Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She is a cognitive trainer and English tutor with a passion for day-hiking and nature. Be sure to visit the TenPaths YouTube channel, which is still in its infancy.

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