California is known for its native venomous rattlesnakes. These dangerous and deadly snakes are common throughout the Golden State. They can even be found near cities, like L.A. and San Diego.
The California venomous snake list includes the western rattlesnake, western diamondback rattlesnake, red diamond rattlesnake, sidewinder, southwestern speckled rattlesnake and Mojave rattlesnake. There are no coral snakes in California. The yellow-bellied sea snake is venomous, but very rare.
Of these, the Mojave rattler likely has the most potent venom. It’s also deadly because it has huge venom glands, and it’s highly aggressive.
Venomous Snakes Found in California
Some states have venomous snakes from different snake families. So, for example, you might find coral snakes, water moccasins, and rattlesnakes in some states. Different species usually inhabit different habitats, e.g. water moccasins near water and rattlesnakes in the desert.
But in California, there’s only one kind of venomous snake: the rattlesnake. If you’re interested in variety, don’t worry. There are lots of different species and subspecies of rattlesnake in California.
When Do Snakes Come Out in California?
You’re likely already familiar with the term ‘California snake season’. This refers to the time of year that snakes are most active.
Snakes are most active in the springtime. That’s when they finish brumation, the reptile version of hibernation. During this period, the snakes have to hunt for and eat lots of food to make up for the winter. They also mate at this time.
The snakes will stay active throughout the spring and summer. They will be less active during the fall, as it’s too late for them to mate and lay eggs. They will then start brumating again when temperatures dip below freezing at night.
How Many Venomous Snakes in California?
In terms of native species, there are six venomous snakes in California. Each of these is a kind of rattlesnake. They inhabit every part of the state, and have adapted to different habitats.
If you’re interested in population, nobody’s sure of the exact numbers. But the rattlesnakes that call California home aren’t endangered. Many of them live out in the country away from humans.
1) Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus Oreganus)
The western rattlesnake is the most common venomous rattlesnake in this corner of the world. There are three subspecies of this snake found in various parts of the state. These are Crotalus oreganus helleri, Crotalus oreganus lutosus, and Crotalus oreganus oreganus.
You might not know the name ‘western rattlesnake’. Instead, you might have heard of the Pacific rattlesnake or the northern Pacific rattlesnake. You may have also heard of the southern Pacific rattlesnake and the Great Basin rattlesnake. These are all subspecies of the same species.
Western Rattlesnake Appearance
These snakes are highly variable. Their typical pattern is dark brown, dark gray, and olive-brown. They may also have a black or pale yellow background color covered in large, dark blotches with white edges.
As you move down its body, this snake’s color turns darker. The first rings of the tail are the same as the color of their body, but moving towards the tip of the tail, they become darker until they’re black. So, they have a dark tail. Their underside is a pale yellow color with brown spots.
At the tip of their tail is their rattle. This is a feature that’s common to all rattlesnakes, and gives them their name. It’s made up of concentric rings of old scales, hardened like nails. When shaken, the rings clack together to create a distinctive buzzing sound.
As for size, they are usually between three and five feet. The biggest on record was just over six feet long. They’re quite heavy-bodied for a snake, though, which makes up for their short length compared to many other species.
Something else that makes them variable is that their colors and patterns change as they age. When they’re young, these snakes’ patterns are distinct and their colors are bright. But as this snake ages, its colors fade.
Western Rattlesnake Habitat
These snakes inhabit almost every corner of the state. They’re equally happy down at sea level as they are up in the mountains, up to a height of around 8,000 feet.
The only place you won’t find them is in the desert. But don’t worry, because there are other rattlesnake species there instead.
Western Rattlesnake Bite
Like all rattlesnakes, the western rattlesnake is a pit viper. Pit vipers are a family found all over the world. They have highly toxic venom. They’re also renowned for their aggression, making them highly dangerous.
These snakes, like all rattlesnakes, have big, long fangs. The largest snakes have teeth that can reach an incredible four to six inches.
However, you may not be able to see them. These snakes have developed a special ability where they fold their fangs backwards against the roof of their mouth. The point is so that they don’t snap off as easily as they otherwise would.
2) Western Diamondback (Crotalus Atrox)
The western diamondback is one of the best-known rattlesnake species. It’s found all across the southern United States, as well as in Mexico. Its distinctive pattern and aggressive behavior mean you’ll definitely remember an encounter with one.
Western Diamondback Appearance
These snakes are a little longer than western rattlesnakes. The average specimen is from four to five feet. The biggest ever recorded was seven feet, and again, they’re a heavy-bodied snake. This is a trait common to rattlesnakes.
Western diamondbacks can be easily recognized by their unique color and pattern combination. The blotches along their back are a diamond shape (although close to the head, they may be rectangular). These blotches are dark gray-brown to brown in color.
These appear against a contrasting background color, a dusty-looking gray-brown. You may also find some specimens with a pink-brown, brick red, yellow or even chalky white background color. The more contrasting the pattern, the more they stand out.
The other aspect of their appearance that stands out is their tail. Like all rattlesnakes, western diamondbacks have a tail made up of old scales that can rattle and buzz. To make their tail stand out even more, before you get to the rattle, you’ll see they have black and white bands there too.
This gives them their nickname ‘coon tail’! Some other species like the Mojave rattlesnake have a similar warning pattern.
Western Diamondback Habitat
This snake’s range isn’t as broad in California as that of the western rattlesnake. You can only find it in the southeasternmost tip of the state, around the Mojave Desert. Despite that, this snake isn’t rare, and is found across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico too.
These snakes are served by their ability to live in many different habitats. That’s why they can survive across such a broad geographic range. You can expect to find them in:
- Forests, especially forest clearings
- Desert and dusty scrubland
- Rocky canyons
Something that undoubtedly helps them survive in such distinctive habitats is their ability to defend themselves. That’s where their bite comes in.
Western Diamondback Bite
With its broad range and aggressive nature, this snake is thought to bite more people in the U.S. and Mexico than any other species.
And its aggression isn’t making up for a lack of venom. This snake is just as deadly as the other rattlesnakes. If you don’t receive medical treatment, it’s possible to die from one of its bites.
Like other rattlesnakes, this snake has hemotoxic venom. This kind of venom destroys red blood cells, making it difficult for its prey to breathe. Also, its venom destroys tissue, leaving its prey paralyzed. This helps the snake feed without its prey fighting back.
3) Speckled Rattlesnake (Crotalus Mitchellii)
The third snake in our list is just as deadly, but isn’t as well known. While this snake isn’t considered endangered, it isn’t as common in California as the other two species above.
The speckled rattlesnake has two subspecies in California, but they look similar. They can easily be distinguished from other species by their unique pattern.
Speckled Rattlesnake Appearance
The most distinctive thing about this snake species is that they look incredible. Again, their name betrays their appearance. Rather than having obvious bands and blotches, these snakes have a mottled or speckled appearance.
Their color varies, but their pattern stays the same. There are several subspecies, each of which looks a little different. In California, you can expect to find some that are a tan brown color and some that are a rocky gray color.
The gray snakes, in particular, look amazing. Their pattern is tailor-made for them to blend in against rocky backgrounds.
In all other ways, these snakes are like their close cousins. They reach between three and five feet, and are heavy-bodied for a snake. Their head is a distinctive diamond shape, giving them a big jaw.
All rattlers have a big jaw because that’s where they store their venom. The bigger their venom glands, the more venom they can store, and the more prey they can kill. This is an evolutionary adaptation that helps them survive.
Speckled Rattlesnake Habitat
Their range extends into the lower third or quarter of the state of California. They have a bigger range than some of the snakes on our list, which are confined to the Mojave. You can also find them all along Baja California, and in much of Arizona.
The habitat they choose plays a big part in determining how much of California they cover. They prefer rocky habitats, especially inland rather than near the coast. You can also find them in shrubland and desert.
Speckled Rattlesnake Bite
This species isn’t particularly known for its bite. That’s not because it doesn’t have venom. Like all pit vipers, it does. And it’s not because its venom isn’t potent, either. A bite from one will land you in the emergency room, just like the bites of all the snakes in our list.
Rather, it’s because the snake is more rarely encountered than the others. That’s all. If anything, they’re as quick to get aggressive as any other rattlesnake you might meet.
4) Sidewinder Rattlesnakes (Crotalus Cerastes)
Sidewinders are one of the most interesting rattlesnake species. Also known as a horned rattlesnake, this species is named after its unique method of movement.
The sidewinder gets its name from how it moves. There are several ways for a snake to move, including:
- Serpentine. This is what everyone thinks of when they think of a snake moving. The snake moves its head from side to side, wriggling forward with an S-shaped motion.
- Concertina. This is where the head moves forward, grabs purchase on the ground, and pulls the rest of the body forward. In doing so, their body bunches up like a concertina.
- Caterpillar. This method of movement is rare in snakes. They move like a caterpillar, lifting one section of their body off the ground at a time.
But the sidewinder doesn’t move in any of these ways. Instead, they move by sidewinding. This is a little like the concertina, but moving side-on like a crab.
It was only recently that scientists figured out how this method of movement works. Only either the rear or the front of the body is on the ground at a time. It’s as if the snake is jumping forward. It’s difficult to describe, and easy to understand if you watch them doing it.
In all other aspects, the sidewinder is a regular rattlesnake. It’s light tan, with darker brown flecks and saddles. Their spots may be very dark in comparison to their background color. These spots transform into rings as they approach the tail.
As for their other name, the horned rattlesnake? This comes from the two horn-like structures they have above their eyes. These look like tiny horns (or tiny raised eyebrows).
These snakes are found all across the desert regions of the southwest United States. You can find them in the southeast third of California, as well as Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona. If you want to find one, search the Mojave and the land around it.
Their sidewinding movement may be related to their habitat. It’s thought that by only keeping a small part of their body in contact with the ground as they move, they can keep cool. Compare their method of movement to other snakes, most of which keep the majority of their body on the ground.
This is important because snakes are cold-blooded. They need to find ways of regulating their temperature to adapt to their environment.
While this snake is a pit viper, like all rattlesnakes, it isn’t as venomous as other species. It also has smaller venom glands, which means that it can’t deliver as much venom per bite.
That being said, a bite from one will still require medical attention. Apparently, the feeling of being bitten by a sidewinder is like spilling hot oil on yourself. So, you can only imagine how much worse the bite of more potent species is.
5) Mojave Rattlesnake (Crotalus Scutulatus)
Next is the Mojave green rattlesnake. Again, we see the trend of a snake being named after either where you found it, or what it looks like. In this case, the snake gets its name from both.
Mojave Rattlesnake Appearance
The Mojave green rattlesnake gets its name from its color. It’s a pale green color verging on brown. Some specimens are fully pale brown rather than green.
This snake has a fascinating pattern of saddles and flecks. Its saddles are a rusty red-brown color, bordered with both white and black (or dark brown, at least). The pattern is strongest and most obvious when it’s near their head. Near their tail, it’s quite faded.
Like many of the snake on our list, it has a unique adaptation to make its tail even more obvious. Before you reach the rattle, this snake has dark rings to make it stand out. So, not only can a predator hear how dangerous this snake is, it can see it too.
Mojave Rattlesnake Habitat
The Mojave green rattlesnake lives in the southwest United States, as well as Mexico. It’s found in the Mojave desert out to the east of Los Angeles. Its colors help it blend into its sandy, rocky surroundings.
Mojave Rattlesnake Bite
The venom of this snake is especially toxic, even when compared to other pit vipers.
It has both hemotoxic and neurotoxic properties. According to the British Journal of Haemotology, hemotoxic venom is the kind that almost all pit vipers have. It damages muscle tissue once it gets into the bloodstream, attacking the heart, lungs and other muscles around the body.
But neurotoxic venom has an added ‘benefit’. It attacks the nerves that connect the muscle to the brain. By blocking up the nerve endings between the muscle and the nerve, neurotoxic venom stops the brain from being able to tell the muscles what to do.
The point is so that prey which is attacked by this venom is paralyzed (and quickly). This helps the snake eat its food without the food fighting back. And with hemotoxic compounds in the venom too, this snake packs a deadly bite.
6) Red Diamond Rattlesnake (Crotalus Ruber)
The red diamond rattlesnake is the sixth species you’ll find here. It’s less well known than the rest on our list, but can be found near big cities. So, if you’re looking for venomous snakes in San Diego or near L.A., this may be the one you find.
Red Diamond Rattlesnake Appearance
This snake has a reddish-brown tinge to its scales. This effect is especially noticeable when it’s contrasted against something rocky, or if it’s basking on the blacktop.
Its sides are a pale red-brown. All along its back, this snake has saddles that look like the diamonds on a diamondback rattlesnake. These saddles are a darker, brick red than its sides.
Again, this snake has black and white stripes around its tail. But in this species, the bands are even thicker and even more noticeable.
There’s a clear cutoff between the snake’s red back, and then the clean black and white rings. This snake seems to be the best at making its tail look threatening to potential predators.
Red Diamond Rattlesnake Habitat
The red diamond rattlesnake isn’t found across the Mojave, like many of the species on our list. Instead, they’re found between the Mojave and the coast. That means you can find them around San Diego and Los Angeles.
If you wanted, you could head down to Baja California to find them, too. They can be found across the whole peninsula.
Red Diamond Rattlesnake Bite
This snake has one of the least potent venoms of all rattlesnakes. But it speaks for how deadly most rattlesnakes are that you could still die from a red diamond rattlesnake if you don’t see a doctor.
That being said, you’re unlikely to ever be bitten by one. These snakes have a mild disposition, meaning they aren’t as aggressive as other species.
7) Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake
These snakes typically live a long way away from California. They’re most common around Pacific islands like Fiji, Australia, and Indonesia. But yellow-bellied sea snakes have been spotted off California recently, too. These snakes are:
- Black on top and yellow on the bottom
- Able to breathe through their skin underwater
- Three feet long, and thin for their length
- Not big enough to bite a person and deliver venom
- Afraid of people, so they won’t approach you
According to LiveScience, three were washed up on California beaches in the first few months of 2016. This is unusual for two reasons. California is far away from its natural range. But also, these snakes like to live their whole life at sea. So, it’s not clear why they washed up onshore.
The odds of encountering one of these snakes while you’re swimming is slim. You likely don’t need to worry about them. It’s all the rattlesnake on land that you have to take care to avoid.
California Snakes that Look Like Rattlesnakes
One non-venomous snake that looks like a rattlesnake is the bullsnake. Their color and pattern look exactly as you’d expect a rattlesnake to look. It has a mid-brown background with saddles that are a few shades darker.
Another similarity is that the bullsnake has dark rings/bands before its tail, like a rattlesnake. It doesn’t have a rattle, although it can buzz its tail to mimic a rattlesnake and sound a little like one.
This snake looks so similar to rattlesnakes because it evolved to be that way. By evolving to look similar, it can scare away predators and threats by making them think that the snake is a rattler rather than a harmless colubrid. The main differences are:
- The bullsnake’s head is narrower. It doesn’t have venom glands, which are what make the rattlesnake’s head so wide.
- The bullsnake has round pupils rather than slits like a rattlesnake.
- The bullsnake lacks obvious pits above their nostrils, which are the heat pits in rattlesnakes. These help rattlers detect the warmth of their prey when hunting at night.
But if you think a snake may be a rattler, it’s best to avoid it anyway. A bullsnake bite is still no joke and will hurt, although they don’t possess venom.
Can You Find Coral Snakes in California?
If you spot a snake with black and yellow stripes, with red stripes too, it might be a coral snake.
However, it’s not possible to find coral snakes here. Those species are typically found further east, all across the southeast, and only as far west as Arizona. The Arizona coral snake is the nearest species.
If you did see a snake with black, red and yellow stripes, it may not be a coral snake at all. There are snakes you can easily confuse it with. The Sonoran shovel-nosed snake looks a lot like it, but is confined to the Sonoran Desert, which is in Mexico and Arizona.
The red rat snake, a variant of the corn snake, is the closest thing you’ll find to a coral snake in California. But if you know what you’re looking for, it’s difficult to confuse the two.
Are There Venomous Water Snakes in California?
The only venomous water snakes in the United States are cottonmouths. Cottonmouths aren’t found in California.
Contrary to popular belief, most water snakes are harmless. The common watersnake is found in the state, but doesn’t possess any venom.
Are There Any Invasive Species of Venomous Snake in California?
The only venomous snakes in the state are the ones listed above, plus a few subspecies. There aren’t any invasive venomous snakes in the U.S. period.
There are invasive species of the non-venomous kind, however. Pet owners can unwittingly or purposefully release their pets into the wild. Ball pythons, Burmese pythons and corn snakes (which are found here anyway) have all been released into California by owners.
However, there’s a big difference between one released specimen and an invasive species. To be considered invasive, the species has to form a breeding population. That hasn’t yet happened with any of these snake species.
Can You Kill Snakes in California?
The law in many states isn’t clear as to whether it’s legal to kill snakes. But California venomous snake laws are. According to the 2018-2019 Freshwater Sport Fishing Regulations, the open season on snakes is year-round. Snakes which aren’t specifically protected can be legally hunted.
Of the rattlesnake species in California, only one is protected. That’s the red diamond rattlesnake. Of the non-venomous snakes in the state, the San Francisco garter snake and giant garter snake are also legally protected.
But aside from that, all other snakes are fair game. Unless you and your family are in immediate danger, you shouldn’t kill snakes because they are an important part of the ecosystem. They also kill pests like rats and mice. But you won’t get into legal trouble if you kill most species.
Can You Own Venomous Snakes in California?
Under CAL. CODE REGS. Tit. 14, §671 and §671.1, it is unlawful to possess wild animals. This prevents you from catching and keeping venomous snakes without a permit. However, keeping live, native rattlesnakes is not prohibited by fish and game laws, permit or otherwise.