Saturday, October 13, 2007

Beware of Pygmies - Snake, Rattle and Roll

There are four venomous snakes that are found in the Everglades. Most common is the Water Moccasin (Cottonmouth). Largest is the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake. Most uncommon is the Coral Snake and the venomous snake most likely to bite someone? The Pygmy Rattlesnake. I hiked into the Okaloacoochee Slough on Saturday in search of whatever might be around. The water is low, but still up enough that I'd have to wade wherever I might go and the temperature is in the upper 80's. Low enough that snakes might be basking today and just my luck, I came across my 2nd Pygmy in the wild.

The last time I saw one of these in the wild was 1999 on tour. It was crossing the dirt road in the Preserve and I jumped out of the van to stop the snake from slithering off. I realized that I had not put the van in neutral when I looked up and saw the van rolling towards me with 11 terrified tourists watching. This was a little less stressful.

I do worry about these. They only get up to 30 inches long - so quite small and they have a wee little rattle, so they sound like a buzzing insect - not the warning necessary to keep a human from stepping on them. And because this warning system is so poorly designed, they rely on their venomous bite as a last defense - thus the high incidence of bites in Florida.

I kept my distance, but was able to get close enough to get a good look at the pattern down the back. Beautiful colors.

They're fairly quick, but when they are strung out like this, they don't have the ability to strike like they might if they were coiled up. It would be like putting your fist in someone's face with arm outstretched and trying to hit them. Try this now on someone. I'll wait.

Here you can see the classic triangular shaped head that most venomous snakes have. Water snakes will flatten their head and mimic a venomous snake, but here the shape is quite obviously distinctive. These facial pits that create the triangular shape allow them to pick up heat signatures - seen as infrared light - and allows them to track prey. They actually will coil up and wait for anoles, frogs or other cold blooded critters to come by. If they're close enough, they strike, inject venom and wait for their prey to die. They then track them and eat them.

If the snake were to bite someone, it couldn't give enough venom to kill unless you were on your deathbed and deathbeds are not their preferred habitat. If it's a defensive bite - they might not inject any venom or at least less than a hunting bite. You would need treatment just in case. The venom affects the blood causing necrotic tissue. Anti-venom prevents the tissue destruction

In case you thought "pygmy" was a misnomer - the snake is in fact small as you can see here. And where's the rattle! It's virtually non-existent. The rattle is made of several hollowed out "buttons" or scales from their tail - but on pygmies it's tiny.
A hunter came up as I was taking pictures and decided to "inform" me of the natural history of Pygmies. I guess I looked like a tourist with my camera. "You need one of those big cameras" he said before tromping off into the swamp to kill something.


  1. nice photos. Though that one really close up did get me a bit worried as to your proximity to the snake.

  2. It's ok - I have a good camera (makes me looker closer than I was)

  3. I use to see these frequently in the Apalachicola National Forest back in the early and mid 1980s. I lived and worked in Tallahassee at the time and frequently drove the old logging roads, looking for corn snakes. As a venomous snake conoseiur, it was a treat to drive up on a "pygmy" basking on the road. Thanks for a great story!
    Jim Campbell

  4. I thought the camera added ten rattles?

  5. No - that would be pounds - and this one does look a little chunky.