Sidewinder rattlesnakes have a fearsome reputation, and there are some really interesting facts to discover about this species. Would you be able to spot a Sidewinder based on the ‘horns’ above their eyes? Did you know that, while painful and venomous, their bite rarely harms a healthy adult?
Learn about what they eat, where they live, how they move, and whether you should fear their bite and venom. Let’s explore the different Sidewinder rattlesnake facts.
1) Three Sub-Species of Sidewinder
The Latin name is Crotalus cerastes, and they are known as the Mojave Desert Sidewinder.
Also, there are two further breeds of Sidewinder. These are the Sonaran Desert Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes cercobombus) and Colorado Desert Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes laterorepens).
As you will be able to tell from their names, these snakes typically enjoy dry, arid conditions. They are found in many different locations throughout the United States, however.
2) Nicknamed The Horned Rattlesnake
In addition to their official monikers, the Sidewinder has the nickname of The Horned Rattlesnake. This is due to raised scales positioned above the eyes of the snake, which resemble horns.
These ‘horns’ have been developed as an evolutionary protection for the Sidewinder. Firstly, they keep the direct sun out of the snake’s eyes. As this breed lives in some of the hottest parts of the country, this is essential. Also, Sidewinders love to burrow in sand, where they wait to ambush to prey. These horns prevent sand from getting trapped in the snake’s eyes.
Sidewinders are the only Rattlesnake to have these physical attributes, making them easy to identify. They sometimes resemble the Horned Adder (Bitis cornuta) or Spider-Tailed Horned Viper (Pseudocerastes urarachnoides).
Neither of these snakes is native to the USA, though. The former hails from Africa, and the latter from Iran. This ensures they should not be encountered in the wild in the United States.
3) Sidewinders Are Native to Four States
You’re likely to encounter one of these varieties of Sidewinder in four States:
- The Mojave Desert Sidewinder resides in California, Utah, and Arizona.
- The Sonaran Desert Sidewinder resides in Arizona.
- The Colorado Desert Sidewinder resides in California, Arizona, and Colorado. Don’t be fooled by the name, though. This snake will most often be found close to the Colorado River.
It’s not just the United States that have Sidewinders; they are very populous throughout Mexico.
4) Named After Their Method of Movement
If you happen across J-shaped tracks in the desert sand, a Sidewinder is nearby.
These snakes take their moniker from the fact that they gain traction by moving from side to side. Ask Nature offers more information on Sidewinder Rattlesnake adaptations, also known as the locomotion movement style.
The Sidewinder’s style of movement involves lifting most of their body from the ground. As they wriggle from side to side, the snake propels itself forward. This method of movement enables movement across unstable and smooth surfaces, such as sand.
A snake that climbs a tree will also use the locomotive movement style. Sidewinders are happier on the ground, however, and rarely climb any higher than a basking rock.
5) Can Reach Movement Speeds of 18 MPH
Despite this unique style of movement, Sidewinders can be very rapid. The official title of fastest snake in the world belongs to the Black Mamba.
However, as this video from the Smithsonian Channel explains, Sidewinders can reach very high speeds. This means that they should be taken seriously as a potential threat.
6) One of the Smallest Breeds of Rattlesnake
All Sidewinders have the same physical attributes of Rattlesnakes. They will have triangular heads, oval-shaped eyes, and fangs. Sidewinders are also comparatively thin, and have a white belly.
Sidewinders are small, as far as Rattlesnakes are concerned. Females are larger than males, but this snake is rarely longer than two feet in length. Somewhere closer to a foot-and-a-half is more likely.
7) Scales Blend in with Desert Surroundings
As Sidewinders are ambush predators, they possess the ability to camouflage themselves according to their surroundings. These snakes are sandy brown in color, with a variety of markings. This will help them disappear into the sand, or even twigs and rocks.
This benefits the snake, as it means that potential food will not see it coming. Sidewinders will not chase prey unless strictly necessary, and prefer to lie in wait before striking.
Of course, this makes it dangerous for humans. It’s easy to accidentally disturb Sidewinders while in the desert, and be bitten for your trouble. Always wear appropriate, protected footwear in Sidewinder territory.
8) Not Outright Aggressive
Very few snakes will actively look for a human. Sidewinders are no exception, and would generally rather avoid any contact with us. Naturally, however, some interaction may be unavoidable. Sidewinders tend to camouflage themselves into the sand, and maybe approach unwittingly.
If you do encounter a Sidewinder in the wild, stay away. These snakes will not willingly and intentionally attack if not provoked. If you give a Sidewinder space, they’ll leave you alone.
If this snake feels threatened, however, they may bear a grudge. When a Sidewinder’s blood is up, they’ll give chase and look to bite.
This Rattlesnake can move at pace when they need to. Even though a Sidewinder’s bite is rarely fatal to humans, it’s no laughing matter. There is nothing to gain by upsetting a Rattlesnake.
9) Strong Swimmers
If you do find yourself chased by an angry Sidewinder, water is not a safe refuge. All Rattlesnakes are naturally adept swimmers. If a Sidewinder finds themselves in a body of water, they will be able to effortless glide across the surface.
This skill sometimes comes in handy when a Sidewinder is hunting food. They will eat amphibians and aquatic reptiles if they are struggling to find warm-blooded mammals.
10) A Sidewinder’s Bite is Rarely Fatal to Humans
If a Sidewinder does bite you, try not to panic. It is likely to hurt – potentially a lot – but you shouldn’t need antivenin. All the same, you will need to get some medical attention.
If you’ve been bitten by a Sidewinder, take a few moments to calm down. Keep the wound below your heart, and address any bleeding with a bandage. There is no need to call an ambulance, but do get to a doctor. The closest ER is the safest option, just in case.
It’s unlikely that the bite itself will cause any permanent damage. Snakes mouths, however, may contain bacteria. This leaves you very open to secondary infections, and the bite should be inspected. You’ll also likely experience intense pain, swelling, nausea, dizziness and muscle weakness. The Journal of Medical Toxicology profiles the worst-case scenario from a Sidewinder bite.
11) Nocturnal in the Summer and Diurnal During Winter
Like all snakes, the Sidewinder is cold-blooded and relies on the heat of the sun to stay alive. As they also dwell in arid, desert conditions, however, this breed has to be careful. It’s easy for a Sidewinder to overheat, and this can be fatal.
The Sidewinder adapts to this by avoiding the sun where possible during the height of summer. While it’s particularly hot, Sidewinders are nocturnal and hunt in the early hours of the morning. They will then bask a little in the sun, warming their bodies. Once the snake is warm enough to survive the rest of the day, they will hide.
When the winter arrives, Sidewinders are much more active during the day as they hunt food. The cold weather can be dangerous for snakes, however. During the coolest months of the year, Sidewinders build a nest and hibernate until spring.
12) Have a Varied Diet – Including Other Snakes
The preferred delicacy of a Sidewinder is a rodent. These snakes will often hide beside animal burrows, camouflaging themselves in the sand.
When they sense prey, they will wait patiently and eventually launch an ambush. This involves striking and immobilizing the animal with venom, before swallowing it whole.
While rodents are the most common prey for a Sidewinder, these snakes can look elsewhere. Sidewinders will also eat small lizards and amphibians, especially when they are young.
This may include smaller Sidewinders, as this breed of snake is not above cannibalism. Birds and their eggs can also be food in a pinch, as can roadkill.
13) Hunt Prey Using Heat Sensors
Rattlesnakes are Pit Vipers, so they have small heat sensors between their eyes and nostrils. Sidewinders, like many snakes, do not have great eyesight, so they use these sensors to hunt.
Sidewinders looking for food will raise their head and ‘see’ nearby prey using these heat pits. It’s akin to an infrared sense, that tells a snake when something is close. This ability has defensive uses too, however; it warns a Sidewinder when warm-blooded predators are nearby.
14) They are Prey to Other Animals
Despite a fearsome reputation and ability to protect themselves with venom, Sidewinders are considered a delicacy. Some of the animals that eat Sidewinders include:
- Birds of Prey (including hawks, owls and kestrels)
- Larger snakes
- Large lizards
Such commonplace predators explain why these snakes tend not to live too long in the wild. Also, many Sidewinders fall foul to car tires while scavenging for roadkill.
15) Set Up Nests and Dens in Disused Animal Burrows
As Sidewinders prefer to stay out of sight, they will often set up home in burrows. This is where Sidewinders hibernate during the coolest months of the year. It’s also where they give birth, recuperate from the experience and protect their young.
16) The Mating Season is April and May
Sidewinders typically reach sexual maturity between two and three years of age. They aim to reproduce at least once per year, in the spring. However, if food is hard to come by, most Sidewinders will skip a mating season.
Like most snakes, Sidewinders are not social outside of mating season. This is likely the only time that you will find multiple Sidewinders in the same locale.
17) Sidewinders are Ovoviviparous
Sidewinder eggs incubate within the body, and the babies are born live. An average litter of baby Sidewinders will number around ten. These infant snakes are usually around 8 inches long, and weighs just eight grams.
Giving birth is a difficult process for a Sidewinder. It can take up to three hours, and some snakes die of exhaustion following the process. This explains the comparatively high mortality rate, and low life expectancy, of female Sidewinders.
18) Comparatively Maternal
Unlike many snakes, Sidewinders spend a few days with their young after birth. A maternal Sidewinder is not a reptile to mess with. These snakes will protect their babies with everything they have for the first few days of their life.
After about around ten days week, however, usual snake behavior takes over. Baby Sidewinders will experience their first shed and leave their habitat. After this, they have no further interaction with their mother. Small lizards are a popular delicacy for baby Sidewinders.
19) It is Legal to Own a Pet Sidewinder in Some States
Despite their fearsome reputation, some States will allow exotic pet owners to keep Sidewinders. Nobody should consider bringing a Rattlesnake into their home unless they are experienced snake handlers. This breed needs to be managed carefully. Rattlesnakes are also illegal pets in many States, even with an exotic animal permit.
Sidewinders tend to adapt well enough to zoo conditions, but they can be cantankerous. A Rattlesnake will grow particularly agitated if they are kept in enclosed spaces. If you are to host a pet Sidewinder, you should ensure that they have a very large vivarium.
You’ll need to provide plenty of sand or equivalent substrate for the Sidewinder to burrow within. Also, the vivarium will need to be very secure.
20) Can Live as Long as 30 Years in Captivity
Sidewinders are sturdy snakes, and can live for a long time. A well-cared-for Sidewinder can live for at least twenty years in captivity, maybe even thirty.
This life expectancy is lower in the wild, due to predators and harsh weather. Male Sidewinders are not expected to live much longer than a decade in the wild. Females are even more likely to die young, possibly only living for around five years.
Sidewinders are unique and fascinating creatures, standing apart from many Rattlesnakes. There is no real need to fear a Sidewinder, though equally they should never be antagonized.
If you happen across one of these creatures in the wild, keep your distance. Show no aggression and give a Sidewinder the opportunity to escape, and they’ll leave you alone.
Watch them leave, using their unique style of movement, and marvel at nature. It’s the best way to share the planet with these captivating animals.