Sidewinder tracks in the sand,
with their characteristic "J" shape.
Short Video and Sounds
A Mohave Desert Sidewinder in motion on a windy night.
A Mohave Desert Sidewinder sidewinds and crawls across the desert.
Watch a Mohave sidewinder crawl at night slowly then very quickly over the sand with its unique sideways locomotion.
Listen to the faint rattling of a sidewinder
California Park warning sign.
Click the picture to see more
Rattlesnakes are important members of the natural community. They will not attack, but if disturbed or cornered, they will defend themselves. Reasonable watchfulness should be sufficient to avoid snakebite. Give them distance and respect.
"Rattlesnakes are also among the most reasonable forms of dangerous wildlife: their first line of defense is to remain motionless; if you surprise them or cut off their retreat, they offer an audio warning; if you get too close, they head for cover. Venom is intended for prey so they're reluctant to bite, and 25 to 50 percent of all bites are dry - no venom is injected."Leslie Anthony. Snakebit: Confessions of a Herpetologist. Greystone Books, 2008.
Rattlesnake bites can be extremely dangerous, but rattlesnakes should not be considered as vicious and always ready to attack without provocation. They will not strike without a reason, but they will aggressively defend themselves. They are often portrayed with the body partly coiled, the tail rattling loudly, and the head up ready to strike. This display is a warning not to come any closer or they will strike; a defensive behavior that some rattlesnakes use when they sense that crawling away would put them in danger. If they are given some space and some time to escape to a safe place, they will usually crawl away as fast as possible.
Because they cannot crawl to safety as fast as some snakes, rattlesnakes often use their cryptic color and pattern to blend into their surroundings in order to hide from their prey and from other animals that could threaten them. They often hunt by sitting still and waiting for a warm-blooded prey animal to pass close enough for the snake to strike it. Sometimes a passing human will be struck instead, mistaken for food. When they sense the presence of something that might threaten them, rattlesnakes often lie still to avoid detection and do not rattle, because that would give away their location. At other times they rattle loudly, sometimes from a good distance, to warn potential enemies of their presence. In both cases they are doing everything they can to avoid confrontation and to avoid striking and biting and using up their valuable supply of venom which they need to kill and digest their food.
A bite by this snake can be very dangerous without immediate medical treatment.
Treatment can require hospitalization and great expense.
Adults are 17 - 33 inches long. (43 - 84 cm). Snakes encountered will generally be 12 - 18 inches long.
Juveniles are about 7 inches long at birth.
A heavy-bodied venomous pit viper with a thin neck, a large triangular head, and a thick tail with a rattle on the end made of loose interlocking segments. A new rattle segment is added each time the skin is shed, which can be more than one time per year.
Pupils are elliptical. Scales are keeled.
The supraocular scale over each eye is enlarged and raised up over the eye giving the appearance of a "horn" over each eye. These scales can fold down over the eyes to protect them when the snakes is buried or crawling in underground burrows.
Heat sensing pits on the sides of the head help the snake to locate prey by their warmth.
Long, hollow, movable fangs connected to venom glands inject a toxic venom which quickly immobilize the prey. The snake can control the amount of venom injected and the fangs are replaced if broken. Though the amount of venom a sidewinder injects is relatively small and rarely deadly, bites on humans are potentially dangerous. Even a dead snake can bite and inject venom if the jaws open reflexively when they are touched.
The segment of the rattle closest to the body is black.
Color and Pattern
Pale cream, tan, brown, pink, or grayish back color usually closely matches the soil surface allowing the snake to blend in with the background.
Around 40 darker blotches on the back.
A dark stripe extends through each eye.
Juveniles are born with only a single rattle button at the end of the tail.
The dark segment of the rattle closest to the body on an adult C. c. cerastes is brown,
The dark segment of the rattle closest to the body on an adult C. c. laterorepens is black.
The dark rattle segment may not become fully black on C. c. laterorepens until the snake is an adult with 3 or more rattle segments.
The last dark marks on the tail do not always correspond to the color of the dark rattle segment.
C. c. cerastes has 21 scale rows. C. c. laterorepens has 23 scale rows. C. c. laterorepens has a higher number of ventral scales than C. c. cerastes.
Primarily nocturnal and crepuscular during periods of excessive daytime heat, but also active during daylight when the temperature is more moderate.
Not active during cooler periods in Winter.
Moves with a sidewinding locomotion, throwing raised loops of the body to the side to push itself forward in an s-sheped curve. A sidewinders trail looks like a series of parallel j-shaped lines pointing roughly 45 degrees from the direction of movement.
Sound - The Rattle
When alarmed, a rattlesnake shakes its tail back and forth. The movement rubs the rattle segments together producing a buzzing sound which serves as a warning. Newborn snakes have only one rattle segment which does not make a sound.
Diet and Feeding
Eats mainly lizards when young, and increasingly larger prey including small rodents when grown.
An ambush hunter, it sits buried beneath the surface of loose sand with just the top of the head showing, near kangaroo rat warrens, and lizard or rodent trails, then strikes at and releases the prey. The snake then follows the trail of the envenomated animal and swallows it whole.
Young snakes may use their tail to lure their prey (caudal luring.) They coil up and lie still, raise up the tail, and wiggle it.
Pits on the sides of the head sense heat. These heat sensors help the snake to locate prey by their warmth.
Long, hollow, movable fangs connected to venom glands inject a very toxic venom which quickly immobilizes the prey.
The snake can control the amount of venom injected and the fangs are replaced if broken.
Rattlesnakes are ovoviparous. The mother keeps her fertilized eggs inside her body and gives birth to living young.
Females probably start bearing young at three years of age and breed annually. (Klauber, 1982)
Breeding occurs in the spring.
Two to 18 young are born from July to September. (Stebbins & McGinnis, 2013)
Inhabits primarily areas of wind-blown sands, especially where sand hummocks are topped with vegetation. Also found in hardpan, open flats, rocky hillsides, and other desert areas, especially those grown with creosote bush, where the terrain is open, not obstructed by rocks or vegetation, allowing the broad sidewinding locomotion.
This subspecies, Crotalus cerastes cerastes - Mohave Desert Sidewinder, is found in south-central California south and east of the Sierras south to roughly the San Bernardino county line.
The species Crotalus cerastes - Sidewinder, is found in the Southern California deserts, east through southern Nevada to extreme southwestern Utah, into western Arizona, and south into northeast Baja California Mexico, and northwest Sonora, Mexico.
Notes on Taxonomy
'The spelling of the word "Mojave" or "Mohave" has been a subject of debate. Lowe in the preface to his "Venomous Reptiles of Arizona" (1986) argued for "Mohave" as did Campbell and Lamar (2004, "The Venomous Reptiles of the Western Hemisphere"). According to linguistics experts on Native American languages, either spelling is correct, but using either the "j" or "h" is based on whether the word is used in a Spanish or English context. Given that this is an English names list, we use the "h" spelling (P. Munro, Linguistics, UCLA, pers. comm.).'
(Taxon Notes to Crotalus scutulatus, SSAR Herpetological Circular no 39, published August 2012, John J. Moriarty, Editor.)
Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M. Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.
Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.
Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Snakes of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.
Bartlett, R. D. & Alan Tennant. Snakes of North America - Western Region. Gulf Publishing Co., 2000.
Brown, Philip R. A Field Guide to Snakes of California. Gulf Publishing Co., 1997.
Ernst, Carl H., Evelyn M. Ernst, & Robert M. Corker. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.
Wright, Albert Hazen & Anna Allen Wright. Handbook of Snakes of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press, 1957.
Ernst, Carl. H. Venomous Reptiles of North America. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.
Hayes, William K., Kent R. Beaman, Michael D. Cardwell, and Sean P. Bush, editors. The Biology of Rattlesnakes. Loma Linda University Press, 2009.
Hubbs, Brian R., & Brendan O'Connor. A Guide to the Rattlesnakes and other Venomous Serpents of the United States. Tricolor Books, 2011.
Klauber, Laurence M. Rattlesnakes. University of California Press. (Abridged from the 1956 two volume Rattlesnakes:
Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind.) University of California Press, 1982.
Rubio, Manny. Rattlesnake - Portrait of a Predator. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.
Walls, Jerry G. Rattlesnakes: Their Natural History and Care. T. F. H. Publications, Inc., 1996.
The following status listings are copied from the 2017 Special Animals List and the 2017 Endangered and Threatened Animals List which are published by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either CDFW list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status, you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.
Check here to see the most current complete lists.
This snake is not included on the Special Animals List, which indicates that there are no significant conservation concerns for it in California.