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Sidewinder at the LA Zoo LAIR at the LA Zoo Photo credit Tad Motoyama

Scientific Name: Crotalus cerastes

Sometimes called the “horned rattlesnake,” this particular species has upward-pointing scales resembling horns above its eyes. The horns are thought to help protect its eyes from sand, especially when the snake buries itself.

There are three subspecies of sidewinder: the Mojave Desert Sidewinder, the Sonoran Sidewinder and the Colorado Desert Sidewinder. The biggest difference between the three is simply their location, although even those are close together. The sidewinder is primarily nocturnal, but it will also come out during the day in cooler weather. However, in winter the sidewinder becomes largely inactive.

Onward and Sideways

The sidewinder gets its name from the way it travels across the desert terrain. To perform its sidewinding motion, the snake throws raised parts of its body to the side to propel itself forward but at an angle. It appears that the head is thrown forward first and the rest of the body follows in a wave-like motion. Its body is positioned in an s-shaped curve as it moves, but it leaves a j-shaped print in the sand. The sidewinder uses this form of locomotion because it helps provide traction on the slippery, loose sand.

The sidewinder’s status is unavailable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

This snake species lives in the southwestern United States as well as northwestern Mexico. It prefers sandy desert areas, although sometimes sidewinders can be found on rocky terrain.

Sidewinders eat all types of lizards, rodents and birds found in the desert. Young sidewinders typically start with smaller lizards, but as they mature into adults they are able to go after larger prey. They are known as ambush predators because they like to hide under the sand, waiting for their prey to pass by. Once they spot a meal, they will bite their prey, injecting it with venom through their retractable fangs. They will then release the prey and follow its trail, waiting for the creature to be incapacitated, at which point they will consume it whole.

A typical adult sidewinder will be around 18 inches long, with females averaging longer lengths. They can have a ground color of tan, grey, pink, brown or yellow, while blotches on their dorsal side tend to be lighter. This coloring helps them camouflage well in the desert sand. They also have a pair of dark spots on the back of their triangular-shaped head and heat-sensing pits on the side of the head to help detect prey. Sidewinders have rough, keeled scales on their dorsal side, especially around the middle of their body. This makes them less shiny than snakes with smooth scales, perhaps helping them stay better hidden in the sand. Additionally, they have a rattle at the end of their tail which they use to ward off potential threats.

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