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What is a Sidewinder Snake?

By Christina Edwards
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A sidewinder snake is one of two types of snakes found in arid regions of the southwestern part of the United States or Africa. These venomous snakes get their name from the way that they move. Unlike most snakes that slither head first, sidewinders travel sideways, leaving a J-shaped trail in the sand.

In America, Crotalus cerastes, or the horned rattlesnake, can be found in southwestern parts of the United States and northern parts of Mexico. There are three sub-species of this snake, which include the Mojave Desert sidewinder, the Sonoran Desert sidewinder, and the Colorado Desert sidewinder. Because they are all very similar in appearance, these three sub-species can be identified by the location where they are found. Mojave Desert sidewinders can be found throughout southern California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Both the Colorado Desert sidewinder and Sonoran Desert sidewinder can be found in parts of southern California, Arizona, and northern Mexico.

The sidewinder snake in America is often colored to blend in with its surroundings. It can range from a pale to medium brown, and most of these snakes will have small dark patches on their backs. The nickname, horned rattlesnake, derives from the raised scales above their eyes. While they may appear to be horns, in reality, they are most likely there to protect the snake's eyes from sand and the hot sun.

The horned rattlesnake is thought to be a smaller species of rattlesnake. An adult sidewinder snake is on average between 17 to 32 inches (43 to 80 centimeters). Females of this species of snake are often larger than their male counterparts, which is slightly unusual.

During the hot summer months, the sidewinder snake is generally nocturnal, preferring to travel during the cooler nights. As the winter months approach, these snakes will often become diurnal, and travel during the day to avoid the extreme cold of the desert nights. In periods of extreme heat or cold, sidewinders are thought to hibernate, often burying themselves in the sand or occupying abandoned animal burrows.

The venom of the sidewinder snake is considered to be weaker than that of other species of rattlesnakes, and the animal also has smaller venom glands. While it is thought to be less dangerous, its bite still has the potential to be fatal. A sidewinder bite will typically be accompanied by pain, swelling, blistering, and bruising. Other symptoms include nausea, dizziness, chills, and possibly shock.

American sidewinders use heat-sensing pits located near their eyes to help them locate prey, and they use their venom to kill it before consumption. Depending on the age of the snake, its diet usually consists of lizards, rodents, or small birds. Younger snakes seem to prefer to snack on lizards, and some have been observed attracting them with their tails. As a sidewinder snake gets older, it stops this behavior, and small desert rodents, such as the kangaroo rat, become their main prey.

Mating season of this sidewinder snake is usually during late spring to early summer. Mothers will typically give birth in the early fall to as many as 18 live offspring, which are roughly 6 to 8 inches (15.2 to 20.3 centimeters) long. It is generally agreed that the mother will stay with her babies inside the burrow for about a week to two weeks. After the baby snakes shed for the first time, they will then go out into the world.

In the Namib Desert of Africa, there is another type of sidewinder snake, Bitis peringueyi. Commonly known as the Peringuey's desert adder, this venomous snake also moves in a sideways motion like the horned rattlesnake. It is usually light brown to gray in color, and it also blends into its surroundings with the same dark markings down its back. This smaller relative, however, typically reaches an average length of 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 centimeters).

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Discussion Comments
By Feryll — On May 24, 2014

I saw a documentary on rattlesnakes in general and desert sidewinder snakes in particular. Each year in the United States, some places have rattlesnake roundups. Snake handlers go out and capture hundreds of snakes and festivals are held. Snake handlers put on shows, snakes are cooked and eaten, and they are milked for their venom.

Supposedly, without these roundups, the snake population would be far out of control, creating a dangerous situation for people in the areas.

By Sporkasia — On May 24, 2014

We sometimes spend a week or two in Texas during the summer. Our dogs love to roam over the desert near the house where we stay when we are there. The dogs also like to harass the snakes, and we can tell when the dogs have gotten too close to one of the sidewinder snakes.

The tell-tell sign is a swollen snout. Fortunately, as the article mentions, the sidewinder's venom is not the most deadly, and the dogs recover in a couple days and are back to normal.

By Animandel — On May 23, 2014

I was surprised to read in paragraph number six of this article that the sidewinder rattlesnake found in the U.S. has a less powerful venom than other rattlesnakes. I don't know why, but I assumed the sidewinder snake was more deadly.

Maybe it is just that strange movement that gives the impression they are more dangerous than other snakes. By the way, the snake's method of locomotion is thought to be an adaptation to the hot sand on the desert ground.

The side-winding motion enables the snake to have less of its body in contact with the hot sand as it moves about. When other snakes move, the majority of their undersides are touching the ground. The sidewinder snake's body touches the ground at only two points.

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