North America’s smallest rattlesnake

Despite tramping through the brush with great frequency during most of my life, I haven’t really seen that many noteworthy reptiles.  I don’t know whether its because I’ve failed to actually encounter them or whether my singleminded obsession with insects above all other things natural has instead prevented me from seeing what was right in front of me.  Regardless of the reason, all that has seemed to change during the past two seasons (strangely coincident with my decision to start carrying a camera), and I now seem to be enjoying a bit of a reptile bonanza.  Last summer I featured a super-aggressive prairie rattlesnake from a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota and an uncooperative dusty hognosed snake from Missouri’s critically imperiled sand prairies (both first-time sightings for me).  The reptilian treats continued this year – I saw my first juvenile Osage copperhead in May to go along with the several adults that I’ve encountered, and shortly afterwards during a June trip to northwestern Oklahoma I was treated to a gorgeous male eastern collard lizard, two Texas horned lizards, and a much more cooperative western hognosed snake (the last two being first-time sightings for me).  There was another herp that I saw during that Oklahoma trip, but I did not feature it here because I had stupidly declined to strap the camera bag to my back during a quick look at a roadside habitat.  That sighting was another first-timer for me – a western pygmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliaris streckeri).  I’m no herp expert, so wasn’t sure what it was at the time, but I later learned that its small size and distinctive markings were quite diagnostic.

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Western pygmy rattlesnake – Sistrurus miliarius streckeri

Amazingly, I encountered this same species again just a few weeks later during a visit to the White River Hills of extreme southwestern Missouri.  It was during the second of two trips to the region to search for the stunningly beautiful bumelia longhorned beetle, Plinthocoelium suaveolens plicatum (family Cerambycidae), and the weather during that day – continuous drizzle and low, threatening clouds – had not been at all conducive for finding such a sun loving beetle.  After searching an area where I knew the beetles occurred, without success, daughter Madison and I resigned that the drizzle was here to stay and decided to pass the rest of the day with some hiking at one of Missouri’s most spectacularly wild and beautiful places, Hercules Glades Wilderness.  A splendid mix of post oak savannahs and limestone glades intersperses through the oak/hickory forests in these rugged hills, creating some of Missouri’s most scenic vistas.  Near the end of the hike at the edge of one of these glades on the high point of Coy Bald, I saw this little individual coiled up underneath an eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) tree.  Unlike the terrifyingly aggressive prairie rattlesnakes I encountered in South Dakota last fall, this snake seem to be relying upon its cryptic coloration to avoid detection, rattling only after I had approached quite closely… or maybe it was only then I could actually hear the rattle, which was barely audible and sounded much like the buzz of a small katydid.

Pygmy rattlesnakes are the smallest rattlesnakes in North America, growing to around 15-25 inches long – this individual looked to be about 18-20 inches in length.  They are one of only two U.S. species in the primitive rattlesnake genus Sistrurus - the other being the larger wet prairie inhabiting massasauga (S. catenatus).  All other rattlesnakes (28 species, 13 in the U.S.) belong to the genus Crotalus (Smith et al. 2001).  Western pygmy rattlesnakes are not really a western U.S. species, but rather the westernmost subspecies of this southeastern U.S. species (with subspecies miliarius and streckeri occupying the northeastern and southeastern portions, respectively, of its range).  In Missouri, it is not nearly as common as the timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), occurring only in the extreme southern Ozarks along the border with Arkansas and up into the St. Francois Mountains of the eastern Ozarks (Johnson 1997).  Although no known human deaths have ever been caused by this species, known locally as the “ground rattler,” it is nevertheless poisonous and worthy of respect.  I must admit to having been lulled a little bit by its calmness – much like the juvenile copperhead I photographed in May – and found myself tempted to approach ever closer for photographs.  The photograph below represents the closest that I was able to get before it began “striking” at me – whether these were bluff strikes intended to frighten or actual attempts to bite I do not know.  Suffice it to say that I “got the message” and ended my attempts to get even closer.  Daughter Madison watched in nervous amazement as all this was going on, and afterwards I tried to impress upon her young, virgin mind what a rare and wonderful experience we’d just had.  Perhaps I succeeded, as this was the first story she told to her head-shaking mother upon our return home the following evening!

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Photo details: Canon 100mm macro lens on Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/9-10, MT-24EX flash 1/2 power through diffuser caps.

REFERENCES:

Johnson, T. R. 1997. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Missouri. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City, 368 pp.

Smith, H. M., E. D. Brodie, D. M. Dennis and S. Barlowe. 2001. Reptiles of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Golden Field Guide from St. Martin’s Press, New York, 240 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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About Ted C. MacRae

Ted C. MacRae is a research entomologist by vocation and beetle taxonomist by avocation. Areas of expertise in the latter include worldwide jewel beetles (Buprestidae) and North American longhorned beetles (Cerambycidae). More recent work has focused on North American tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) and their distribution, ecology, and conservation.
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23 Responses to North America’s smallest rattlesnake

  1. Beautiful snake, but you neglected to pull aside those grass stems near his head;)

  2. Heber says:

    I was planning on hiking in the Hercules Glades Wilderness over Labor day weekend with my brother. He’s more of a bug enthusiast than I am and was hoping to see a tarantula. I had heard there are quite a few down in that area. Have you come across any?

    • There are probably more tarantulas in that part of Missouri than anywhere else, and I’ve seen a few, but it’s not like they’re crawling all over the place. Most frequently they are seen when crossing the roads during late summer and fall – those are males in search of females, which tend to stay put in their burrows.

  3. myphotoscout says:

    Never heard of Pygmy rattle snakes before. I am not sure if I had the calm it took to shoot the snake.
    About those few grass stems: You could spend some time in Photoshop to get them out, although I think the photo is already pretty good.

    • I wasn’t nervous at first – it seemed so calm (like the copperhead I photographed earlier this year). When it started striking at me, however, I got real nervous – all I could think about was being an hour away from the nearest hospital with nobody around but my 9-yr old daughter!

      I have Photoshop Elements, but I don’t have quite the experience on how to use it to remove the grass blades. I tried the spot healer at 5px, and that really didn’t work – perphaps the clone tool also at a small scale using the adjacent areas for source color?

      Thanks for the visit.

      • myphotoscout says:

        Cloning works well unless you are close to the edge of the frame. You can adjust how many adjacent pixels are used for interpolation and the size.
        Start at the edge of the snake and paint in both directions to get the transition right.

        • Okay, thanks for the tips. By both directions, I assume you mean in from one side of the grass blade as well as the other, using the snake at the edge of the grass blade as the source stamp. I guess the smaller the pixels the better – it just depends on how much time I want to spend on it.

          By the way, I really enjoy your photos of California scenery – they bring back a lot of memories from my days out there during the 1990′s.

  4. Just a note: my comment on the grass stems was done tongue-in-cheek. It is a great picture of the rattler in its habitat, and it does not need changing. In no way would I want Ted to sacrifice life-and-limb (or hours of his time in Photoshop) for a photograph. We need him up and about doing more great articles.

    • Hi Adrian – your tongue-in-cheekness was understood :) Perfectionist that I am, however the grass stems did bother me. Still, I’d much rather be out looking for, photographing, and writing about things than staring at the computer trying to ‘fix’ their images. I should probably just concentrate on trying to get the best shots that I can out in the field and move on.

      And thank you for the nice remark.

  5. Clay Bolt says:

    Hey Ted,

    Great find! I’ve only encountered a few rattlers to date, including a fairly large, but timid timber rattler (Crotalus horridus) a few months back. I always feel like I’ve hit the jackpot when I discover a new snake.

    Your shots turned out better than mine. When the timber saw me, it immediately retreated to a very low, shaded overhang. It apparently had no desire to become famous.

    Clay

    • Thanks, Clay. Snakes are great, and I’m always especially excited when I see one of the vipers. Several years ago (long before I picked up the camera again) I saw a western diamondback rattlesnake at Big Bend National Park. It was a biggun – stretched out across the road, and we got out and had a real nice look at it. Sure would like to get a photograph of something like that one of these days.

  6. troymullens says:

    Great post on snakes. Terrific photograph. The last time we were down in the Rio Grande Valley we saw a beautiful 5-6′ Indigo snake. He crossed the road ahead of us, I screeched to a stop in the middle of the road (no cars coming) and chased him into the brush to no avail.

    Come visit,
    Troy
    I C U Nature.

    • Thank you, Troy. I’ve never seen an indigo snake!

      Ah, the Rio Grande Valley – it’s been too long since I last visited. I’ve been there six times so far (’84, ’85, ’94, ’97, ’01, and ’04) – that last trip we started at Boca Chica and followed it all the way to Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend. It was probably one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.

  7. jason says:

    Very cool find! And twice no less… But I’ll admit I’m a tad disappointed that you didn’t pick if up for a closer view. Being so small and such, it would have been easy to handle, yes?

    [runs away quickly...]

  8. Allison says:

    Dang, Ted, you got really close to that guy! We had to cancel a meeting down in Roaring River country because a child was bit by a pygmy at the pool there at the park. I think he had to have 18 injections of anti-venom? Eek. I never see snakes, either. Wonder why? I’m always looking down.

    • I don’t know – I always figured I never saw them because I was making too much noise as I banged my way through the brush looking for beetles. Lately though I’ve seen lots – more in the past two years than the previous 20 combined. I don’t think I’m walking any quieter. Maybe I’ve just finally developed an eye after seeing a few.

      I probably got a little too close :)

  9. Hi Ted

    My opinion on the snake – beautiful but deadly! You did all of the correct things!

    Best regards, Trevor

  10. Pingback: House of Herps #5: Slime Poetry « Fall To Climb

  11. Beautiful, indeed! I think I’ll stick with my telephoto for venomous snake photos…not so sure I would want to be face-to-face with this snake, no matter how pretty!

    BTW, I agree with Adrian – the photo is excellent as-is.

    • Hi, Amber – I’m thinking a telephoto might have been a better choice for me as well (if I had one). I used my 100mm macro, and while it has a fair amount of working distance, the temptation to close in on its head was almost too great.

      And thanks!

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