Species of Concern: Sidewinders

We encounter multiple awe-inspiring species of animals on our adventures. Recently, we became acquainted with Sidewinders.

Sidewinders are the only rattlesnakes in the United States truly adapted to the hot, sandy deserts of the Southwest. They "sidewind" when they move, which is a survival strategy, and also the origin of their name. They use a complex system of movements to seemingly glide across the sand. They only make contact with the sand with two small sections of their body at a time and throw themselves forward as they move. They lift most of their body up off the hot sand, which helps to keep them cool, and it helps them to move very quickly. Unlike other snakes, this motion leaves a distinctive J-shaped track in the sand. Watch them in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B3NbPUTD5qA

Sidewinders have a distinctive feature: pointed scales/brows above their eyes. Theories about their brows suggest they help protect the eye from sand, and/or to act like an eye awning for better vision on sunny days.

They bury themselves in sand to hide from predators, ambush their prey, and to regulate their body temperature. Cratering in the sand, coupled with their sandy skin color, allow them to disappear into their environment. They are different colors based on the color of sand where they live.
 DNA analysis shows that all Sidewinders are genetically similar, so once when it was believed there were subspecies, this subcategorization no longer exists.

Sidewinders are primarily ambush predators, hiding until their prey crosses their path. They eat lizards and small rodents as adults. As juveniles, they almost exclusively eat lizards, which they lure to them with their yellow-tipped tails. This tactic is called "caudal luring" and a few species of snakes do it. Watch a Southern Death Adder doing "caudal luring": https://vimeo.com/36010097

Sidewinder venom is mildly toxic and they tend to only inject a small amount of it with each release, but human deaths have been reported. Sidewinders are mild-tempered and calm compared to the Western Diamondback or Northern Mohave; however, it's easy to step on them when they are cratered in the sand so use hiking poles when out in desert sand.

Because they move about in open areas (like large desert expanses) and tend to move frequently, they are vulnerable to skunks, coyotes, kit foxes, bobcats, snake-eating snakes, ravens, crows, roadrunners, owls, and several raptors. Additionally, humans play a large role in their deaths, too. Sidewinders are listed as a species of concern and their human threats include habitat loss, road mortalities, and exotic collectors.


We recommend picking up Rattlesnakes of the United States & Canada by Manny Rubio. It's a great resource and was a basis for most of the information in this post.

Copyright of this photo belongs to our friends Chester and Barbara. It is used with their permission.

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