- Strike speed is especially important to the life of a snake. It is the difference between a big dinner or going to bed hungry.
- Ground speed is a little bit less important than strike speed, as snakes have very good camouflage.
- The Sidewinder is the world’s fastest-moving snake.
It’s human nature to assume that our sophisticated bodies with highly developed brains and dexterous digits are the peak of evolution, but there’s a reason that snakes have continued to populate our imaginations and our fears throughout history and across practically every civilization.
Their form factor allowed them to blend easily into practically any environment and move swiftly without notice. And that simplicity of design — when combined with their uniquely hinged jaws — produced a predator that could prey on animals that were seemingly well outside its weight class.
Today, green anacondas can eat anything from wild deer to domesticated sheep. But with the introduction of venom, snakes were killing even the largest animals with their bite. An increasing body of research indicates that primates developed a more sophisticated sense of sight because of threats from snakes, and we appear to share an innate genetic aversion to snakes with our fellow primates.
In turn, snakes evolved their adaptations, and natural selection tended to prioritize adaptations that maximize that inherent advantage of speed. As pure carnivores who are also ambush predators, any minute alteration to strike speed could make the difference between slithering to home with a full belly or potentially being stomped or clawed to death.
Ground speed was often less important, particularly with species that had the advantage of good camouflage. But it’s only natural that many snakes saw their environments sharpen their already agile bodies with new advantages.
Considering there are more than 3,000 snake species with populations on every continent except Antarctica, these adaptations are quite diverse. Few of us need to fear death from snakes in the way our ancestors did, but that doesn’t make these cold-blooded creatures any less impressive.
Here are eight of the fastest snakes in the world.
#8: Black Mamba — Africa’s Fastest-Moving Snakes
Ground Speed: 12 Miles Per Hour
If a speed of 12 miles per hour doesn’t sound too fast compared to the record-setting sidewinder rattlesnake, imagine a 14-foot-long snake barreling toward you at that speed. Being large and highly venomous leaves these snakes with few natural predators despite inhabiting environments ranging from grasslands to forests.
The black mamba will typically move in sprints between the ground and low canopies if possible using a dipping motion that’s unique to most snakes and particularly stunning given the sheer size of this giant serpent.
As long as they can sneak up on it, prey like squirrels and mice rarely stand a chance. That’s because the black mamba combines that exceptional ground speed with a venom poisonous enough to kill a human with just two drops.
#7: Common Death Adder — Australia’s Fastest-Striking Snakes
Strike Speed: 100 milliseconds
When we mentioned that few people today have to think every day about snake bites, we weren’t talking about Australia. The death adder earned its name because it combines adept camouflage, highly toxic venom, and an incredibly fast bite. In just a tenth of a second, the common death adder can inject their venom and return their jaw to the active attack position.
Over half of venomous attacks on humans will lead to death if left untreated. However, they only inject venom about half of the time and there is an antivenom. Death adder habitats stretch across much of eastern and southern Australia, where their ambush tactics make them a serious threat to prey like rodents.
Ironically, it could also contribute to the low incidence of common death adder attacks on humans. Death adders have no interest in humans, and their capable skills as hunters mean people will rarely ever sneak upon them.
#6: Southern Black Racer — The World’s Fastest Non-Venomous Snakes
Ground Speed: Up to 8 Miles Per Hour in Bursts
Constrictors are some of the slowest snake species on Earth, so the Southern black racer‘s scientific name is a bit misleading. This snake doesn’t constrict its prey, it uses brute force to pin it down and suffocate it. That land speed is a necessity for evading predators as well.
Racers have developed great talents for climbing and swimming as well as sprinting, but hawks have developed a keen sense of eyesight and both the momentum and accuracy to pluck a black racer right up. That’s not to say that the black racer can’t put up a fight.
Researchers have observed instances where great horned owls were strangled by racers, which in turn died from injuries inflicted by the owl’s talons.
#5: Yellow-Bellied Sea Snake — The Fastest Snakes In The Water
Speed on Water: 2.5 Miles Per Hour
All snakes can swim, but the yellow-bellied sea snake is one of several species that have adapted to live their whole lives in the water. Its yellow and black pattern ensures it will stand out distinctly on the waves, but that seems to be of little consequence to this snake which has no observable predators. They also have the widest distribution of any other snake species, with habitats expanding across both the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
Still, it’s rare for humans to encounter one thanks to the deeper waters in which they prefer to swim. That’s a good thing, as sea snake poison is highly venomous. The yellow-bellied sea snake used to chase prey consisting almost entirely of fish, and they’ve adjusted to the briny waters they inhabit thanks to an ingenious evolution that allows it to filter freshwater from the saline ocean surface.
#4: King Cobra — The Snakes With The Fastest Killing Venom
Time to Kill a Human: 30 Minutes
The longest venomous snake in the world is such a lethal killer that they’ve taken to making other cobras their prey. Their venom is a unique blend of different toxins — but they can inject roughly a quarter of an ounce into their victims with their needle-sharp teeth. Few animals have immunity from this toxin, meaning that the king cobra has few natural enemies.
One exception is the mongoose, a feisty little mammal that’s known for facing down the king cobra. Mongoose is typically three feet long, while king cobras can reach a staggering length of 18 feet. The mongoose isn’t immune to cobra toxins, but they do have a resistance that allows them to stay in the fight even if they’re bitten.
Both animals are lightning-quick, and a fight on land could go either way.
#3: Cottonmouth — The Fastest Strike Speed In America
Strike Speed: 2.97 Meters Per Second
For ambush predators, being able to reach high movement speeds on land isn’t always a necessity, but a fraction of a millisecond can mean the difference between life and death. The cottonmouth’s fangs can cover over six feet in less than a second, and it can strike out at a length up to two-thirds of its entire body length. A fight isn’t what this snake is looking for.
Once its prey has been injected with venom, the snake will let it wander off to die and follow at its leisure. Mammalian prey can range in size from mice to rabbits.
#2: Rat Snake — The Fastest Strike Speed Of A Nonvenomous Snake
Strike Speed: 2.67 Meters Per Second
Strike speed can make a big difference for venomous snakes that simply need to inject their prey with a single bite — but the science journalism community is more interested in why a snake that produces no venom and constricts its prey to death would need a strike speed of nearly that of a diamondback.
It may have contradicted common beliefs about how venomous and nonvenomous snakes developed in tandem, but it makes sense when you consider that the constriction process can kill prey in just a matter of seconds. It’s a reminder that predators and prey are in a constant evolutionary arms race — often measured in fractions of a second.
#1: Sidewinder — The World’s Fastest Moving Snakes
Ground Speed: 18 Miles Per Hour
The unique way the sidewinder rattlesnake moves is critical to achieving its incredible top speed, but scientists had to build a robot to learn how the fastest snakes on land worked. Most snakes benefit from scales that can grip surfaces and essentially offer traction in the same way that the treads on a car’s tires would. But sidewinders occupy the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts throughout Mexico and the American Southwest.
Here, the steep dunes and gritty sand offer the challenge that it would take a family sedan desert off-road racing. Rather than dig into the sand as researchers originally hypothesized, they instead adjusted their angle to press as much of their body against the sand as possible. It’s a tactic that keeps even the tallest dune stable and lets the sidewinder keep as much “rubber on the road” as possible. Ideally, sidewinder rattlesnakes don’t even have to chase their prey.
They’re ambush predators that hide in the sand up to their necks.
Honorable Mention: Chrysopelea
This snake has a unique talent that most snakes don’t–it can fly! The chrysopelea, or flying snake, can travel at 8-10 meters per second, making it the fastest air-traveling snake. The glider does it by moving to the very edge of a tree branch, making a J-shaped bend, leaning in with its eye on a chosen landing spot, and then pushing off at full speed. Once in flight, this marvelous acrobat flares its ribs while sucking in its belly in order to glide through the air. They can travel as far as 330 feet.
What Other Fast Reptiles Are There?
Leatherback turtles: Although speed isn’t usually associated with these aquatic cousins of the slow-moving tortoise, things are quite different for members of this species which have a hydrodynamic form. And in spite of their large sizes, and general speeds of 1.7 to 6.2 mph one specimen was observed to make a dash at a speed of 22 mph, a speed, even Phelps has no hopes of matching.
Crocodiles: Those relatively short legs might make anyone think they have a chance at outsprinting these toothy reptiles known for their voracious appetites. However, crocs are capable of achieving speeds of 22 mph per hour. They are also capable of swimming at speeds of 18 mph per hour, making them capable of outclassing humans on both land and in the water.
Summary Of The 8 Fastest Snakes
|2||Cottonmouth||2.97 meters per second|
|3||Rat Snake||2.67 meters per second|
|4||King Cobra||Time to Kill a Human: 30 Minutes|
|5||Yellow-bellied Sea Snake||2.5 mph|
|6||Southern Black Racer||8 – 10 mph|
|7||Common Death Adder||100 milliseconds|
|8||Black Mamba||12 mph|
Bonus Snakes: The Fastest in The World
While we’ve found the eight fastest snakes in the world, we felt there needed to be a few more honorable mentions.
Here are some bonus snakes that did not make the list:
Chysopelea or flying snakes likely fly to evade predators, move between trees without descending, and possibly hunt. They glide up to 300 feet by shaping their undersides.
The Gaboon Vipers tend to be a bit sluggish, however, the snake can deliver lightning-fast strikes, with its head capable of reaching speeds between 175 and 200 miles per hour.
Inland taipans are known for their elusive nature, making it challenging to gauge their speed accurately. Their top speed is estimated to be around 5 mph, but their striking speed surpasses this. Although not as fast as the Black Mamba, the Inland taipan’s venom is swift-acting and can potentially be lethal to a person within approximately 45 minutes.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Artistic Operations
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